What a Coincidence!

My title is an expression you hear quite often, the exclamation mark denoting how surprising it seems when, for example, you walk into a shop and find yourself behind your friend in the queue (especially if you were just thinking about her), or if perhaps the person at the next desk in your office turns out to have the same birthday as you.

But by considering the laws of probability you can come to the conclusion that such things are less unlikely than they seem. Here’s a way of looking at it: suppose you use some method of generating random numbers, say between 0 and 100, and then plot them as marks on a scale. You’ll probably find blank areas in some parts of the scale, and tightly clustered clumps of marks in others. It’s sometimes naively assumed that, if the numbers are truly random, they should be evenly spread across the scale. But a simple argument shows this to be mistaken: there are in fact relatively few ways to arrange the marks evenly, but a myriad ways of distributing them irregularly. Therefore, by elementary probability, it is overwhelmingly likely that any random arrangement will be of the irregular and clumped sort.

randomTo satisfy myself, I’ve just done this exercise – and to make it more visual I have generated the numbers as 100 pairs of dual coordinates, so that they are spread over a square. Already it looks gratifyingly clumpy, as probability theory predicts. So, to stretch and reapply the same idea, you could say it’s quite natural that contingent events in our lives aren’t all spaced out and disjointed from one another in a way that we might naively expect, but end up being apparently juxtaposed and connected in ways that seem surprising to us.

Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, put it more crisply:

People are entirely too disbelieving of coincidence. They are far too ready to dismiss it and to build arcane structures of extremely rickety substance in order to avoid it. I, on the other hand, see coincidence everywhere as an inevitable consequence of the laws of probability, according to which having no unusual coincidence is far more unusual than any coincidence could possibly be. (From The Planet that Wasn’t, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1975)

All there is to it?

So there we have the standard case for reducing what may seem like outlandish and mysterious coincidences to the mere operation of random chance. I have to admit, however, that I’m not entirely convinced by it. I have repeatedly experienced coincidences in my own life, from the trivial to the really pretty surprising – in a moment I’ll describe some of them. What I have noticed is that they often don’t have the character of being just random pairs or clusters of simple happenings, as you might expect, but seem to be linked to one another in strange and apparently meaningful ways, or to associate themselves with significant life events. Is this a mere subjective illusion, or could there be some hidden, organising principle governing happenings in our lives?

Brian Inglis

Brian Inglis, from the cover of Coincidence

I don’t have an answer to that, but I’m certainly not the first to speculate about the question. This post was prompted by a book I recently read, Coincidence by Brian Inglis*. Inglis was a distinguished and well-liked journalist in the last century, having been a formative editor of The Spectator magazine and a prolific writer of articles and books. He was also a television presenter: those of a certain age may remember a long-running historical series on ITV, All Our Yesterdays, which Inglis presented. In addition, to the distaste of some, he wrote quite widely on paranormal phenomena.

The joker

In Coincidence he draws on earlier speculators about the topic, including the Austrian zoologist Paul Kammerer, who, after being suspected of scientific fraud in his research into amphibians, committed suicide in 1926. Kammerer was an enthusiastic collector of coincidence stories, and tried to provide a theoretical underpinning for them with his idea of ‘seriality’, which had some influence on Jung’s notion of synchronicity, in which meaning is placed alongside causality in its power to determine events. Kammerer also attracted the attention of Arthur Koestler, who figures in one of my previous posts. Koestler gave an account of the fraud case which was sympathetic to Kammerer, in The Case of the Midwife Toad. Koestler was also fascinated by coincidences and wrote about them in his book The Roots of Coincidence. Inglis, in his own book, recounts many accounts of surprising coincidences from ordinary lives. Many of his subjects have the feeling that there is some sort of capricious organising spirit behind these confluences of events, whom Inglis playfully personifies as ‘the joker’.

This putative joker certainly seems to have had a hand in my own life a number of times. Thinking of the subtitle of Inglis’ book (‘A Matter of Chance – or Synchronicity?‘) the latter seems to be a factor with me. I have been so struck by the apparent significance of some of my own coincidences that I have recorded quite a number of them. First, here’s a simple example which shows that ‘interlinking’ tendency which occurs so often. (Names are changed in the accounts that follow.)

My own stories

From about 35 years ago: I spend an evening with my friend Suzy. We talk for a while about our mutual acquaintance Robert, whom we have both lost touch with; neither of us have seen him for a couple of years. Two days later, I park my car in a crowded North London street and Robert walks past just as I get out of the car, and I have a conversation with him. And then, I subsequently discover, the next day Suzy meets him quite by chance on a railway station platform. I don’t know whether the odds against this could be calculated, but they would be pretty huge. Each of the meetings, so soon after the conversation, would be unlikely, especially in crowded inner London as they were. And the pair of coincidences show this strange interlinking that I mentioned. But I have more examples which are linked to one another in an even more elaborate way, as well as being attached to significant life events.

In 1982 I decided that, after nearly 14 years, it was time to leave the first company I had worked for long-term; let’s call it ‘company A’. During my time with them, a while before this, I’d shared a flat with a couple of colleagues for 5 years. At one stage we had a vacancy in the flat and advertised at work for a third tenant. A new employee of the company – we’ll call him Tony McAllister – quickly showed an interest. We felt a slight doubt about the rather pushy way he did this, pulling down our notice so that no one else would see it. But he seemed pleasant enough, and joined the flat. We should have listened to our doubts – he turned out to be definitely the most uncongenial person I have ever lived with. He consistently avoided helping with any of the housework and other tasks around the flat, and delighted in dismantling the engine of his car in the living room. There were other undesirable personal habits – I won’t trouble you with the details. Fortunately it wasn’t long before we all left the flat, for other reasons.

Back to 1982, and my search for a new job. A particularly interesting sounding opportunity came up, in a different area of work, with another large company – company B. I applied and got an interview with a man who would be my new boss if I got the job: we’ll call him Mark Cooper. He looked at my CV. “You worked at company A – did you know Tony McAllister? He’s one of my best friends.” Putting on my best glassy grin, I said that I did know him. And I did go on to get the job. Talking subsequently, we both eventually recalled that Mark had actually visited our flat once, very briefly, with Tony, and we’d met fleetingly. That would have been five years or so earlier.

About nine months into my work with company B I saw a job advertised in the paper while I was on the commuter train. I hadn’t been looking for a job, and the ad just happened to catch my eye as I turned the page. It was with a small company (company C), with requirements very relevant to what I was currently doing, and sounding really attractive – so I applied. While I was awaiting the outcome of this, I heard that my present employer, company B, was to stop investing in my current area of work, and I was moved to a different position. I didn’t like the new job at all, and so of course was pinning my hopes on the application I’d already made. However, oddly, the job I’d been given involved being relocated into a different building, and I was given an office with a window directly overlooking the building in which company C was based.

This seemed a good omen – and I subsequently was given an interview, and then a second one, with directors of company C. On the second one, my interviewer, ‘Tim Newcombe’, seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him and thought no more of it. He evidently didn’t know me. Once again, I got the job: apparently it had been a close decision between me and one other applicant, from a field of about 50. And it wasn’t long before I found out why Tim seemed familiar: he was in fact married to someone I knew well in connection with some voluntary work I was involved with. On one occasion, I eventually realised, I had visited her house with some others and had very briefly met Tim. I went on to work for company C for nearly 12 years, until it disbanded. Subsequent to this both Tim and I worked on our own accounts, and we collaborated on a number of projects.

So far, therefore, two successive jobs where, for each, I was interviewed by someone whom I eventually realised I had already met briefly, and who had a strong connection to someone I knew. (In neither case was the connection related to the area of work, so that isn’t an explanation.)

The saga continues

A year or two after leaving company B, I heard that Mark Cooper had moved to a new job in company D, and in fact visited him there once in the line of work. Meanwhile, ten years after I had started the job in company C – and while I was still doing it – my wife and I, wanting to move to a new area, found and bought a house there (where we still live now, more than 20 years later). I then found out that the previous occupants were leaving because the father of the family had a new job – with, it turned out, company D. And on asking him more about it, it transpired that he was going to work with Mark Cooper, making an extraordinarily neat loop back to the original coincidence in the chain.

I’ve often mused on this striking series of connections, and wondered if I was fated always to encounter some bizarre coincidence every time I started new employment. However, after company C, I worked freelance for some years, and then got a job in a further company (my last before retirement). This time, there was no coincidence that I was aware of. But now, just in the last few weeks, that last job has become implicated in a further unlikely connection. This time it’s my son who has been looking for work. He told me about a promising opportunity he was going to apply for. I had a look at the company website and was surprised to see among the pictures of employees a man who had worked in the same office as me for the last four years or so – from the LinkedIn website I discovered he’d moved on a month after I retired. My son was offered an initial telephone interview – which (almost inevitably) turned out to be with this same man.

In gullible mode, I wondered to myself whether this was another significant coincidence. Well, whether I’m gullible or not, my son did go on to get the job. I hadn’t worked directly with the interviewer in question, and only knew him slightly; I don’t think he was aware of my surname, so I doubt that he realised the connection. My son certainly didn’t mention it, because he didn’t want to appear to be currying favour in any dubious way. And in fact this company that my son now works in turns out to have a historical connection with my last company – which perhaps explains the presence of his interviewer in it. But neither I nor my son were aware of any of this when he first became interested in the job.

Just one more

I’m going to try your patience with just one more of my own examples, and this involves the same son, but quite a few years back – in fact when he was due to be born. At the time our daughter was 2 years old, and if I was to attend the coming birth she would need to be babysat by someone. One friend, who we’ll call Molly, said she could do this if it was at the weekend – so we had to find someone else for a weekday birth. Another friend, Angela, volunteered. My wife finally started getting labour pains, a little overdue, one Friday evening. So it looked as if the baby would arrive over the weekend and Molly was alerted. However, untypically for a second baby, this turned out to be a protracted process. By Sunday the birth started to look imminent, and Molly took charge of my daughter. But by the evening the baby still hadn’t appeared – we had gone into hospital once but were sent home again to wait. So we needed to change plans, and my daughter was taken to Angela, where she would stay overnight.

My son was finally born in the early hours of Monday morning, which was May 8th. And then the coincidence: it turned out that both Molly and Angela had birthdays on May 8th. What’s nice about this one is that it is possible to calculate the odds. There is that often quoted statistic that if there are 23 or more people in a room there is a greater than evens chance that at least two of them will share the same birthday. 23 seems a low number – but I’ve been through the maths myself, and it is so. However in this case, it’s a much simpler calculation: the odds would be 1 in 365 x 365 (ignoring leap years for simplicity), which is 133,225 to 1 against. That’s unlikely enough – but once again, however, I don’t feel that the calculations tell the full story. The odds I’ve worked out apply where any three people are taken at random and found all to share the same birthday. In this case we have the coincidence clustered around a significant event, the actual day of birth of one of them – and that seems to me to add an extra dimension that can’t so easily be quantified.

Malicious streak

Well, there you have it – random chance, or some obscure organising principle beyond our current understanding? Needless to say, that’s speculation which splits opinion along the lines I described in my post about the ‘iPhobia’ concept. As an admitted ‘iclaustrophobe’, I prefer to keep an open mind on it. But to return to Brian Inglis’s ‘joker’: Inglis notes that this imagined character seems to display a malicious streak from time to time: he quotes an example where estranged lovers are brought together by coincidence in awkward, and ultimately disastrous circumstances. And add to that the observation of some of those looking into the coincidence phenomenon that their interest seems to attract further coincidences: when Arthur Koestler was writing about Kammerer he describes his life being suddenly beset by a “meteor shower” of coincidences, as if, he felt, Kammerer were emphasising his beliefs from beyond the grave.

With both of those points in mind, I’d like to offer one further story. It was told to me by Jane O’Grady (real name this time), and I’m grateful to her for allowing me to include it here – and also for going to some trouble to confirm the details. Jane is a writer, philosopher and teacher. One day in late 1991, she and her then husband, philosopher Ted Honderich, gave a lunch to which they invited Brian Inglis. His book on coincidences – the one I’ve just read – had been published fairly recently, and a good part of their conversation was a discussion of that topic. A little over a year later, in early 1993, Jane was teaching a philosophy A-level class. After a half-time break, one of the students failed to reappear. His continuing absence meant that Jane had to give up waiting and carry on without him. He had shown himself to be somewhat unruly, and so this behaviour seemed to her at first to be irritatingly in character.

And so when he did finally appear, with the class nearly over, Jane wondered whether to believe his proffered excuse: he said he had witnessed a man collapsing in the street and had gone to help. But it turned out to be perfectly true. Unfortunately, despite his intervention, nothing could be done and the man had died. The coincidence, as you may have guessed, lay in the identity of the dead man. He was Brian Inglis.


*Brian Inglis, Coincidence: A Matter of Chance – or Synchronicity? Hutchinson, 1990

Tweets and Hums

Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

T S Eliot

T S Eliot – Internet visionary?

Not the first time I have kicked off with an Eliot quotation – but this one, from Burnt Norton in The Four Quartets, seems to me to have more prescience than Eliot himself could ever have known; it suggests something of how the poet might have described the Internet, had he encountered it. It’s not just the mention of ‘this twittering world’ which stands out, but if you have combed through a few typical Internet forums – or tweets, for that matter – you may feel that ‘eructation of unhealthy souls’ aptly describes some of the content.

Well of course for a couple of years I have been adding my own thin reedy voice to the raging hubbub of the Internet; whether this blog could be described as a series of eructations, or what it might reveal about the health or otherwise of my soul, is for you to judge, dear reader. But I will admit that I have also indirectly contributed to some Internet content that many of us would prefer not to be there. My work, up until I retired three months ago, concerned the provision of services to help companies increase their profits from selling on the Internet. So I can’t pretend that my soul is perfectly untainted, involved as it has been in the grubby business of taking from your wallet, rather than adding to your mind.

But I can at any rate claim never to have tweeted myself. Maybe I’m just too ponderous and verbose to be able to squeeze any of my thoughts into 140 characters. I do have a twitter account, but only use it for listening to what others have to say. I can even boast three followers, one of whom, I was surprised to find, is a prominent poet. So I can only assume that these are refined people who appreciate the value of silence. Perhaps, thinking of Eliot, I am putting ‘the darkness’ back into ‘this twittering world.’

The Hum

But it’s really another sort of noise that I wanted to write about here, which also, by all accounts, ‘sweeps the gloomy hills of London’, as well as many other places. It  must have been two or three years ago – I’m not sure exactly when – that I noticed a sound that I could hear at night when I was in bed. It was a soft, low humming that sounded like a distant motor running – constant but pulsating slightly. It wasn’t one of those noises originating in the house; the central heating and the fridge both generate their sounds only intermittently, and this never seemed to stop, and in any case had a distinct timbre of its own. I didn’t hear it during the day, but in daytime there are many other sounds to drown it out. I assumed that it must be some sort of industrial process in the area, and didn’t give any more thought to it for a while.

Every so often I would lie there and wonder about it. There is little industrial activity in our area, and I hadn’t noticed any sounds coming from what small factories there are. Then one day a few months ago my daughter (to whom I hadn’t mentioned anything about this) passed on to me something a friend had told her, about a phenomenon known as ‘The Hum’. The friend, who lives in a city distant from us, hears this sound and has read about it on the Internet. It seemed to match up with what I was hearing.

The Hum map

Worlwide reports of the Hum – http://www.thehum.info

So a quick bit of Internet research confirmed that it had been reported for at least the last 50 years or so in many parts of the world. But also, oddly, according to most accounts, that only some 2% of people actually hear it. And, even more oddly to me, that many lose sleep as a result, and suffer stress and mental illness. There are even claims of suicides caused by it, although I could find no more details about who these individuals were. I am surprised at all this because the Hum, if that’s what it is, certainly causes no problems for me. Most of us sleep in the presence of all sorts of background noises which we can habituate to, and are mostly not consciously aware of; for me this is just one more such sound. People who hear it are often referred to as ‘sufferers’ – but for me there’s no suffering involved, just mild curiosity.

It’s difficult to know what to make of the fact that only a minority of people hear the Hum at all. I seem to be the only member of my family who hears it; although I’ve now found that our next door neighbour does, and claims that it can prevent her sleeping.  All this suggests some kind of tinnitus – an internal effect generated by the brain or the auditory system. But in my case at least, I have satisfied myself that it is actually out there. Most people, including me, have some sort of noise in their heads – usually a high pitched ringing in the ears, as you can get after you have been exposed to very loud sounds – but much softer, and unnoticed unless you pay close attention to it. Tinnitus sufferers, of course, can have it much louder – distractingly so. But unlike those internal head-sounds, the Hum behaves like a noise in the environment; it appears to come from a direction (usually the window when indoors) and stopping the ears can block it.

If those who hear it are in a minority, perhaps there’s a clue here as to why it causes such distress in some. There may be a spectrum of sensitivity to this phenomenon – the majority unable to hear it at all; some, like me, just aware of it but undisturbed; and the few unlucky ones plagued and distressed. There is some evidence that most hearers are middle-aged or older, and it’s true that I never noticed it until a couple of years or so ago.

So where does it come from?

But the big question is, what is the source of this sound? I mentioned that it seems to come from the window, but if I lean out of the window I’m not sure I can hear it – it seems to be drowned by other ambient sounds (we live a mile and a half from a motorway). However one night recently I found myself awake in the small hours, when background noise is at a minimum. I went outside to listen and, yes, I could hear the Hum. The worldwide reports suggest that it’s not confined to certain localities; I was on holiday recently in Dorset, we’ll away from any towns or industry, and found that  I could hear it there also.

It has been reported to be a mainly indoor phenomenon; but this may simply be that, being a low frequency sound, it penetrates walls and closed windows more readily than other background noise. Outside, it’s overwhelmed by other, mostly higher frequency, ambient sounds. My hunch is that it could be some sort of vibration originating from the earth below. This could mean that the walls of a building act as a soundboard, magnifying the sound within. The ground source theory is backed up by one recent report, claiming that it’s a seismic phenomenon originating from wave motion impacting the sea bed. This all sounds rather speculative, however, and the mention of 13 to 300 second bursts doesn’t fit with my experience of a constant background noise.

But I do feel that some sort of seismic explanation is the most plausible. It seems that, rather than a ‘twittering world’, we have a humming one. I’d be interested to see comments from anyone who experiences – or suffers from – the Hum. You can also register your experience with it on a website that collects such data: www.thehum.info. And of course, as always, there’s a Wikipedia article.

Off the Rails

You might expect that, now I am at leisure and living beyond the end of that line, I’d have had lots more opportunities to write, and would be producing blog posts by the dozen – but in fact it’s not been until now that I felt one coming on. It’s partly the need to reorientate my perspective on everyday life, while at the same time getting to grips with all the jobs around the house and garden that have been neglected until now. And of course I don’t any longer have that strangely stimulating combination of movement, crowding and solitude which, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, daily train travel provides. So far I’m actually finding less time to read, rather than more – a matter I shall have to put right.

But, behind it all, I do feel some sort of altered perception quietly forming itself. I’m finding a quiet pleasure in repetitive, mentally undemanding tasks – maybe many of us need more of this sort of offline activity in which to make some sort of space to stretch our mental limbs. However for now, I’d just like to revisit my first week of retirement, which was something in the nature of a holiday. We did a little bit of gentle travelling which gave me plenty of opportunity to just look, in the spirit of innocence that I wrote about last time. And so here are a few highlights, revisited with the help of some photos and not too much commentary.

The middle of the week saw us in Sussex, up on the South Downs. I hope this picture, taken in the high clump of trees known as Chanctonbury Ring, gives a feel of the day:

Chanctonbury RingAnd a few days after this rare rural idyll, we were in  a city – Norwich, which I often visit for family reasons. Like all cities which have a long and rich history but are still thriving, there are piquant juxtapositions of old, young (and perhaps middle aged) wherever you look. Here’s one I happened to record:

In NorwichOr there is just the old – sun on the cloisters at Norwich Cathedral:

Norwich Cathedral cloistersAnd in the cathedral itself, there’s an evocative artwork by the Brazilian sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco:

Ana Pacheco sculptureWe are told it’s based on a scene from Virgil’s Aenead – Aeneas carrying his father from the ruins of Troy. I found it quite compelling – it’s the size of the faces, and the way their expressions are rendered, that commands your attention. The style seems like a blend of contemporary and medieval, giving a sense of the timelessness of the emotions depicted; and the cathedral setting adds to this. It put me in mind of some of the topics I’ve thought of writing about here: current attitudes to religion, and how humans and their ways of thinking can change (and also how they don’t change) across time.

More about the artwork here while the exhibition is on.

Second Childhood

Commuting days until retirement: 0

     Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything.

Shakespeare’s seventh and final age of man is maybe responsible for the notion of a second childhood as something negative – a feared disintegration of the faculties. I’ve noticed that the word ‘childishness’ in this passage is sometimes rendered as ‘innocence’. Which is good, because that’s where I want to place my emphasis. Second childhood for me is not so much about senility – indeed, I’m lucky that, so far, my eyes, teeth and taste are largely undiminished. Whether or not I have ‘everything’, I’ve got those; although I suppose at my age, in Shakespeare’s time, I would more than likely have been losing them. And as for ‘mere oblivion’ – no sign of that yet, thankfully.

The Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man: William Mulready (1786-1863)

Perhaps I’m on the sixth stage, ‘the lean and slippered pantaloon’. Aside from the fact that I’m not quite as lean as I ought to be, it’s not such a bad description of me in retirement. And the innocence part? Well, when you get to my age, the future may not be something you want to think about too much; or to put it another way, it is something there is rather less of than there was previously. All the more reason, then, to concentrate thoughts on the present.

And it’s the present that I associate with innocence – think of the first childhood. No past, little notion of the future, but a welter of here-and-now, immediate sensory experiences to be lost in. These are what philosophers call ‘qualia’ – those very basic sensory elements of which our conscious life is built. In recent posts I’ve been arguing against a contemporary trend in science and philosophy to believe that these are somehow illusory, not real. I hope that posts to come will, by way of describing some of my own experiences, help to lay bare the implausibility of that position.

And more importantly, I want to take the chance to regain some of that childhood innocence, with the renewed opportunity to live in the present. Working life is more often than not about deadlines, career worries, and dealing with colleagues or clients who may not always be cooperative. Timetables and schedules drown out the immediacy of the present moment, and much time is spent squinting at images and characters on screens, rather than contemplating real, solid things. Perhaps this increasing abstraction and virtualisation of our working lives has somehow influenced attitudes in scientific thought towards the status of our sensory experiences.

And while I’m aware that my retirement is ultimately financed by that seething corporate world, I have no misgivings about leaving it behind in my own life. Instead of stressing my brain in front of a computer, I’ll be stretching my limbs as I dig in the garden; instead of straining to follow the jargon-filled chatter of a conference call, enjoying the sounds of wind and birdsong.

Innocence and Experience

Songs of InnocenceSongs of ExperienceIt’s conventional to see these two as polar opposites. But however it might have seemed to William Blake, I would suggest that it’s possible to combine them in a fruitful way. Everything was of course very different when I took in the sounds and sights of a summer suburban garden when sent out to play by my mother all that time ago. But now, taking up my garden fork after sixty intervening years, an important part of the experience will be the same, even if embedded in the context of a lifetime’s acquisition of new ideas and perspectives, after long experience.

I deliberately used the word ‘experience’ twice in that last sentence, with two entirely different meanings. The instance at the end is what could be called the Blakean one – lessons learnt, maybe pleasures undreamt of in innocence, but with the concomitant hard knocks suffered and come to terms with. My earlier use of ‘experience’ denotes what we might call ‘pure experience’ – the immediate stream of sensory events before our minds; in other words, what I hold in common with my childhood self. You could argue – and I certainly would – that if we can rekindle an appreciation of the latter sort within the context of the former, there is much to be gained. As Blake himself observed, ‘Without contraries is no progression.’

The constraints of the working life that I have described are perhaps, if in a rather less sinister way, the modern equivalent of Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ which appear, appropriately, in his poem London – my own place of work. It’s in casting them off that I hope to reacquaint myself with that kind of experience which is almost synonymous with innocence.

That’s the potential that I feel a second childhood has for me, as I stand on the verge of it. The dilapidated railway buffers in my new title image signify only an end to daily work and commuting, not any other sort of conclusion. Beyond them there’s a whole new field to explore.

End of the Line

Commuting days until retirement: 10

So – with only ten more cycles of this curious daily shuttling between one place and another, it’s nearly time for me to say goodbye to commuting and finally justify the title of my blog. I’ve been at it, on and off, for just under half a century, which seems an astonishing thought. (And I’ve just thought of the journey to school – that extends my commuting experience to nearly sixty years.)  At different times I have shuttled by foot, bicycle, motor-bike, car, bus, train and various combinations of those.

Right now, travelling 25 odd miles into London, train is the only sensible option, even if it bites a significant chunk out of my salary. But that doesn’t stop my smartphone being convinced that I drive there, telling me faithfully every day: Time to work 95 minutes – 14 minutes delay via A1(M). Its little brain must be puzzled as to how I get there so quickly; and no doubt it will be even more confused when I stop doing the journey altogether, and will probably assume I’m dead and disable itself (although it seems to be making frequent attempts to do that already).

Silly walk

The Mony Python silly walk – perhaps inspired by memories like mine? (imgbuddy.com)

My earliest awareness of the daily cycle of travel was as a young child observing the disappearance and reappearance of my father, and it’s an image of the return home which persists in my memory. I would sit in my bedroom window to take in the view down the road, and watch the phenomenon as it was fifties-style: waves of largely identically dressed men – suits, bowler hats, rolled umbrellas – would be decanted along our street by each train arrival at the nearby station, and I watched until I could distinguish my father among the black suits and hats. The impression on me was such that I would play solitary games in which, with a stick, I attempted to imitate the particular way they swung their umbrellas in smooth arcs as they walked, half-synchronised with their steps like languid third legs. And even more impressive was their nonchalant way of crossing the street diagonally as they proceeded. Having been trained to look right, look left etc., and walk directly across, I would go for this much more sophisticated approach whenever unsupervised by an adult.

But of course commuting as an activity goes back a lot further in time, as I have been reading in Iain Gately’s book Rush Hour. The word itself originated in the United States in 1843, when passengers on the Paterson and Hudson River railroad were offered the opportunity to ‘commute’ their fares by buying a season ticket and getting a discount. Since then commuting by rail or Underground has become an activity where the normal rules of life can be strangely distorted. Normally etiquette forbids us physical contact with strangers – at least without a flurry of apologies if it happens – but on a crowded tube you can find yourself crushed intimately against a man or woman totally unknown to you. There has been awareness of this as an undesirable (or desirable, according to your predilections) aspect of the daily journey since Victorian times. One writer warned that the combined effects of reading stimulating popular novels while in transit, along with both sexes being packed together and shaken by the movement of the train ‘could lead to nervous collapse or the suspension of moral judgement.’

In my experience, however, quite apart from the difficulty of reading in the most crowded carriages, travel of this sort is the least orgiastic experience imaginable. The British in particular are skilled in maintaining a distant, uncommitted indifference even when someone else’s buttocks are pressed into their groin. Not so, it seems in all countries: in Japan, famous for its tightly packed metro carriages, a genre of literature and film has grown up since the publication of a story by Tayama Katai, The Girl Fetish, back in 1907. It generally features the lusting of Japan’s besuited commuters – the so-called salarymen – after schoolgirls, who in earlier times travelled to school in their kimonos. These are apparently not just stories, but extend into real life – there is an openly confident organisation called Chikan Tomo-No-Kai, or ‘The Brotherhood of Molesters’, to which quite eminent men belong.

Ladies only

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Perhaps it was to ward off the possibility of such perversions that, at least until the time I was travelling to school, trains offered ‘Ladies Only’ compartments. A bit of googling reveals that these are still offered in Japan (not surprisingly) as well as a number of other countries, even if they haven’t been in Britain for some years. I can remember as a boy playing a silly and probably dangerous game which involved racing from the ticket barrier as the train arrived and trying to get in as near the front as possible, when one day I crashed into a compartment at the last moment only to find, as the train left, that it was Ladies Only. I was covered with confusion and embarrassment at the situation I had got myself into; but evidently the old ladies seated there found this terribly cute; they immediately adopted me as their pet for the rest of the journey. I was fussed over to such an extent that I was relieved that no other school friends had seen, and exploited the teasing potential.

However the battle of the sexes in the UK, commuting style, is not always so harmless. Many years ago I was on the tube on my way to work, having been up very late the night before before and feeling rather groggy. But I was just too late to get a seat, and was wearily strap-hanging, along with one girl beside me. I’m not sure exactly what happened next; maybe in my ennervated state I was swaying a little more than usual, and just touched her. Either way, I certainly wasn’t aware of any contact, until she suddenly turned and startled me by screaming ‘GET OFF ME!’

The rows of seated commuters jerked their heads up and stared – a goggle-eyed jury who had me instantly tried and convicted. I don’t know what the sentence would have been; luckily we were just reaching a station – not mine – but I didn’t wait to find out. I retreated hurriedly and ignominiously.

Gately’s book tells me that currently only 16.4% of commuting in the UK is by public transport. But, aside from over-packed carriages and incidents like the above, I prefer the relaxed thoughtfulness of train travel to the constant vigilance needed for driving. Many of my blog entries have been written on the train, and right now I’ve got a bit of extra time to finish this piece: I’ve just been told by the driver that there are overhead line problems at Biggleswade, and we are going to be stuck in our present position for some time.

Train window

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This gives me a moment or two to reflect, tablet in hand, about why the train seems such a good place to write. It’s something to do with the suspension from regular living that a train provides – a sort of unconnected limbo that’s not anchored to any of the places which are associated in your routine with things to be done, or duties to be performed. We can add to that the gently stimulating backdrop of the landscape sliding past, giving a privileged, god-like perspective; and the fact that your attention is not demanded for any task at all, as it is for driving. The British aversion to talking to strangers on the train also helps.

So what am I going to do without this aid to creativity? I can imagine that, clutching my Senior Railcard in one hand (I’ll be needing the discount) and my tablet in the other, I may find myself on lovely, half empty midday trains headed nowhere in particular, with no other distractions, and certainly not erotic ones. Goodbye regular, bidden commuting; hello aimless, pleasurable wandering.

Old Ladies, Old Gentlemen, Ironmongers and Encyclopaedias

Commuting days until retirement: 61

So far, I haven’t got to see the film I mentioned – the one I prepared for by reading Testament of Youth and writing about it in the last post. Infuriatingly, my local cinema and all the others in the area were showing it only around lunch time on weekdays. Obviously whoever decides these things had put it down as a film for old ladies. If it were a few months further on I’d be retired, and would be able to consider myself an honorary old lady, buttoning up my overcoat and toddling round to the picture house for a couple of hours of sedate entertainment. As it is I’ll probably wait and see it on DVD, Netflix or whatever.

But in fact I’m not at all in the habit of thinking of myself as an old gentleman, let alone an old lady. A few months ago I went to see a medical specialist about a minor but painful condition (happily temporary, as it turned out). I got my copy of his letter to the GP, which started: ‘I saw this 66 year old gentleman…’. My immediate reaction was: ‘Who can he be talking about? Have I got the wrong letter?’

But no – it came home to me that the way the world sees you isn’t often the way you think of yourself. But does anyone now think of themselves as a ‘gentleman’? A hundred years ago they certainly would have done; and the doctor’s letter shows that it’s still a formal, polite way of referring to someone who has at least reached middle age. But to think of yourself in that way seems like divorcing yourself from the contemporary world and consigning yourself to a time-warped existence.

John Carey

John Carey

My current train reading has in fact reminded me all too sharply of how distant in time my origins now are. It’s another piece of autobiography, of the Oxford English professor and literary pundit John Carey – The Unexpected Professor. He’s a good deal older than me – he was born in the 1930s – but there was so much in his early life which struck a chord with me.

I remember, as he does, the sorts of books that we were given by well-meaning adult relatives, with titles like 101 Things a Boy Can Do. (You could also find collections of Things a Girl Could Do, but, needless to say, they were very different.) There’s a particular phrase that always cropped up in those books which has stayed with me ever since. These masculine activities usually involved some sort of construction project which required certain outlandish components which were always ‘obtainable from any good ironmonger for a few pence.’

Reading about Carey’s boyhood, it was with a delighted shock of recognition that I found he had remembered exactly the same phrase. Like me, he wasn’t exactly sure what was meant by ‘ironmonger’. The most likely candidate in my area was a hardware shop called Mence Smith, where my queries about these unlikely items would be met with blank stares. So maybe it was a Bad Ironmonger – if it was an ironmonger at all, that is.

Another memory I share with him from that time is of the encyclopedias of the time; the very word, in the Internet age, has a dated ring to it. The most prosperous households would own the authoritative, and impossibly expensive, Encyclopedia Britannica, but most of the families I knew had a less prestigious set, usually dating from before the war, with grainy black and white illustrations and text that impressed on the reader how clever and enlightened the ‘modern’ world was, and how abjectly primitive our dim and distant forebears. I particularly remember a picture of the very latest in steam locomotives busily chuffing down the main line, with the breathless caption ‘A Mile a Minute!’  Today, sixty miles an hour is the speed of the average motorway dawdler.

And encyclopaedias make me think of a strange, shadowy business movement that was in its heyday some years back. It was based on sales people going from door to door selling encyclopedias – at one time they seem to outnumber even Jehovah’s Witnesses. I once got a telling glimpse of how this worked when, between a college course and a regular job, I was looking for an opportunity to earn something and saw a newspaper ad inviting people to a meeting about some potential work.  Encyclopedia selling was what it turned out to be. A roomful of people was addressed by a sharply suited, rather too plausible sounding character, who asked people for guesses as to what they would earn for selling a single set. There were hesitant tries.  ‘One pound?’  ‘Two pounds?’ (This was the 1960s – you can multiply the amounts by about 16 for today’s prices.) ‘No,’ he eventually said triumphantly. ‘TWENTY pounds!’

Most of his audience were now slavering like Pavlov dogs, as he had intended, and seemed not to have drawn the obvious conclusion that this meant the encyclopedias were very difficult to sell indeed; and given that it was commission only, and that I would probably be the world’s worst salesman, I knew it would dispiriting and dreadful. He invited anyone who was perverse enough still to be uninterested to leave, and only two of us out of 40 or 50 did. I was reflecting what sort of organisation it was that gleefully duped its own employees.

Some years earlier, as a child, I’d had a glimpse of this from the other side. A new set of encyclopedias, The Children’s Britannica, appeared in our house. It seemed that my father, not usually a soft touch, had bought them on the doorstep. Much later on I heard my mother’s account – that it had been an attractive young woman who was selling them. I doubt if he would have succumbed if it had been a man.

Returning to Professor Carey, I’m now about halfway through his book, hearing about his university career and greatly enjoying tracing his steps as he explored the canon of literature. He’s giving me plenty of ideas for future reading. As a memoir it’s altogether more relaxed than Testament of Youth; he has a gently humorous, self-mocking style that’s light years away from the committed, stormy intensity of Vera Brittain. What they have in common is Oxford; what they don’t have in common is close experience of the pain and loss of war. A child in the Second World War, the nearest Carey got to that was a spell of peacetime ‘National Service’ in the army, which everyone of his generation had to do (I was part of the first generation that didn’t have to). So the difference in tone is entirely understandable; but I recently read an interview with Vera Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, in which she admitted that her mother had no great sense of humour.

And, come to think of it, there’s a significant point of contrast between Shirley Williams and her near contemporary John Carey. Carey makes pointed references in his foreword, and repeatedly in the book, to his utter disapproval of the closing down of grammar schools in the UK. (For those unused to the confusing English terminology, grammar schools are state funded and select by ability, while ‘public schools’, referred to below, are privately funded independent schools where most richer people send their children.)

One thing that has not changed is that Oxford – and Cambridge – still take vastly disproportionate numbers of public-school students. This is often blamed on Oxford and Cambridge. The blame, however, lies with those who destroyed the grammar schools. Selecting for merit, not money, the grammar schools, had they survived, would by now have all but eliminated the public-school contingent in Oxford and Cambridge, with far-reaching effects on our society. This book is, among other things, my tribute of gratitude to a grammar school.

Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams

It was the Labour administrations of the 60s and 70s who put this policy in place, with egalitarian intentions but a strange failure to anticipate the consequences. Shirley Williams, who was a minister of education in the 70s, had a central role in implementing the policy, and still strongly believes it to have been right. Carey, as the above passage shows, was a working class boy – no ivory tower elitist but a perfect exemplar of those who benefited from the grammar school system. One scene from his book nicely encapsulates his outlook: during his spell in the army he has a trip in a small plane in Egypt. The pilot makes a detour to give the passengers an aerial view of the pyramids. Rather than being bowled over by their grandeur, Carey is thinking of the slaves who built them, and the tendency of humanity throughout history to separate itself into a pampered elite and huge, suffering underclass.

So in Carey and Williams we have two open, attractive personalities, both with strongly expressed, left-leaning views, who are diametrically opposed over this point. I’d like to hear them debate it (I’m with Carey).

One final, unconnected point. My reading between the two autobiographical works of Vera Brittain and John Carey was David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks. Both the two memoirs look back to earlier periods of scarcer resources and greater austerity. The Bone Clocks ends in 2043, when climate change and dwindling energy sources are eating away at the comforts we now take for granted, and the characters are wistfully remembering an era of greater plenty. I’m hoping for a long retirement, of course – but perhaps not too long.

Another Antiversary

Commuting days until retirement: 100

I thought I had invented the word,  but on googling, I find there’s nothing new under the cybersun. Antiversary, according to my search, has been adopted to mean the anniversary of a split-up, or a divorce, rather than a wedding. Well I’m going to stick with the meaning I coined back in March 2013 at the time of my 500 day antiversary: it’s the celebration of an event a given time before it happens, rather than after*. And here I am at my 100th. Days, of course, not years; the prospect of another hundred years of commuting would find me under the train rather than in it.

Napoleon

Napoleon at the start of his ‘100 days’

“100 days” always reminds me of a prime minister who,  in 1964, before the start of my working career, gave himself that time for ‘dynamic changes to get Britain moving again’. This was Harold Wilson, in 1964, whom I am old enough to remember quite well.  I expect he was consciously taking a leaf out of the book of previous politicians – but presumably not the one who was originally associated with the phrase. This, it seems, was Napoleon, who returned from exile in Elba to rule France again, on 20 March 1815. His last cent jours as Emperor ended after defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

It was in the USA that the yardstick of 100 days was taken up as a way of measuring the effectiveness of presidents on taking up office, and the first, and most successful, was Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose ‘New Deal’ began America’s recovery from the depression. Inevitably, later presidents, and indeed Harold Wilson in Britain, did not bask in such widespread approval after their own inaugural 100 days. Fortunately I don’t have to fight a battle or put a country back on its feet, but just coast gently towards the day when the work really begins: house and garden to be taken in hand, years of accumulated debris to be cleared, vegetables to be, grown, blog posts – and perhaps other things – to be written. How much time I will have for all that is, you might say, yet to be determined. And at almost the same time as my 100 days ends, that of another government in the UK will start. What sort of government that will be, and whether indeed it will last that long, is anyone’s guess at the moment.)

So now the much-anticipated moment has moved closer, and become certain; we’ve taken the financial advice and started to make the arrangements, and I have made my intentions public at work. I mentioned in a recent post how broaching the subject of retirement might be a bit of a conversation-stopper in terms of company culture. When I made my announcement at an informal meeting, I felt a sort of collective frisson shiver through the room, as younger colleagues suddenly sensed the proximity of something thought of as remote and unreal. “Congratulations!”, said one, with a sort of well meant awkwardness.

I’m not sure whether I deserve to be congratulated on anything, but it’s obvious to any reader of this blog how much I savour the prospect of retiring.  However after nearly fifty years of working life, with few breaks, there’s a rather uncomfortable feeling of cutting myself adrift from my source of sustenance. The only time I have known the branch I was sitting on to have been sawn off was when the company I was working for folded; but now here I am, busy doing the sawing myself. Can that be sensible?

Safety net

My pension, seen as I hurtle towards it
(Ed Berg/Wikimedia)

It’s as if I’m together with fellow workers in a building (as of course I literally am) but in the metaphorical building I’m thinking of, some, leaving for other jobs, simply take the lift down to the ground floor and walk sensibly out of the main door into another building. I’m a bit concerned about the way these suicide-related images keep occurring to me, but here’s the only retirer I’m aware of at my workplace – me – gaily jumping out of the office window on the assumption that his pension safety net is held,  stretched out, by strong hands far below.

Maybe it’s the prospect of doing nothing while being paid – it doesn’t seem real to me. Yes, I know it’s more that I’ve actually built up a fund over time by making contributions, etc etc – but there’s still an eerie unreality about the thought of spending the day doing as you please and still getting money, even if rather less than before.

So a hundred more commuting days left, which I celebrate here with strangely mixed feelings. No snatch of doggerel to celebrate this antiversary, as there was for the 500th – for one thing, I exhausted all the possible rhyme words for ‘antiversary’. For a while now I haven’t been inspired to express myself more seriously in poetry, either; but perhaps retirement will give me a chance to look out that muse from wherever she’s hiding. But I am planning to revive one poem for the New Year.

And I’ll only add that, while engrossed in tapping this into my tablet on the train, I failed to notice the station I should have changed at, and had to get out at the next stop to go back and catch a later connection. I’m not even a competent commuter any more. Definitely time to think about stopping.


*My son suggests that the word should be ‘anteversary’ (ante = before). So there we are. I can have my word and the divorcees can keep theirs.