A Spooky Story

After lots of dithering, I’ve finally published my first book: WraithTalkers and the Secret of the Red Monk. It’s available now to purchase in the Amazon Kindle Store.

This blog isn’t designed to be a plug for the book; it’s more a brief commentary on how and why I’ve arrived at this point.

For structure I’ve written this blog as a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and in time-honoured FAQ tradition I’ve invented all of the questions myself!

Q         Why have you written a book?
A          It’s often said that everyone has at least one book in them and so it was with me. I’ve long had a secret desire to be an author and if I could make any money at it I’d give up the day job in an instant.

Q         Do you write for a living?
A          No, unfortunately I have a day job which keeps me very busy. I’m also a single parent. Spare time is at a premium for me. I would love to be a full-time author, but when you have hungry mouths to feed (and mine is the hungriest) it’s a question of being realistic. WraithTalkers and the Secret of the Red Monk may or may not be a success. Either way I’ve achieved an ambition to write a book. It’s been a hugely enjoyable process.

Q          What is your book about?
A          It’s a ghost story. The blurb on the back of my virtual book runs as follows:

            Thirteen-year-old Marigold Bennett unwittingly acquires a briefcase which contains a beautiful and mysterious object. What is it, and why will the men in dark suits and wrap-around sunglasses stop at nothing to get their hands on it?
            Marigold and her younger brother Gideon are plunged headlong into a spooky adventure from which there seems to be no escape. The siblings have no choice but to unravel the frightening mysteries presented before them. Who was the mysterious Dr Black? What work is carried out at the secretive Hermitage Institute? Who is the elusive whispering man? Is the man with the tattooed hand really what he seems? Most terrifying of all, why has the ghost of a red monk who lived five hundred years ago just started to haunt the local church?
            The children soon realise that there can be no conclusion until an ancient injustice has been resolved. Can Marigold and Gideon discover the monk’s closely-guarded secret? It won’t be easy because he died without telling a single soul.

Q          Who is the book targeted at?
A          The book has been written as an adventure story for children in the 9-12 age bracket. I’ve also tested it with older children and adults. I press-ganged about twenty people into reading it before publication. Of these, only half were directly known to me. All have all enjoyed the story and have been hungry for more, which has been very encouraging.

Q          Why a children’s book?
A          I enjoyed reading adventure stories as a child. I always loved it when there were several books in the series and you couldn’t wait to read the next one. I just came up with an idea of my own.

Q          Why publish for the Kindle?
A          Electronic publishing is a major growth area. Last year almost 10% of book sales in the USA were electronic. This share of the market has been increasing exponentially year-on-year, and much of this is down to Amazon and their Kindle. They currently have the biggest share of the eBook market by a large margin.
It’s relatively easy for anyone to publish with Amazon. You just need to register with the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service and all the help you need is there.

Q          What about more traditional paperback and/or hardback publishing?
A          The trouble is that you need a publisher, and almost certainly the services of a good agent. The children’s book market is incredibly competitive. I had read lots of scare stories, and when I wrote to quite a few agents and immediately had their standard “thank you for your interest” letter by return, I decided to take matters into my own hand.

Q          When did you come up with the idea for WraithTalkers?
A          It was 1996. Yes, it really has taken me this long to write the book and get around to publishing it!

Q          How long did it take you to actually write the book?
A          A few years back I went through an extremely stressful period in my life and I had trouble sleeping. I reasoned that I needed to keep myself busy, and more importantly I needed to find an outlet for my emotions. So I started typing out WraithTalkers. It took about 3 months and almost every word was written between the hours of 11pm-6am. Some chapters took a few weeks; my favourite chapter took me four hours. (In case anyone is interested, my favourite chapter is Chapter 9: Revelations.)

Q          How did you write your book?
A          I started with a basic premise and quickly arrived at a high-level outline of the story.  From that I determined the protagonists and a solid ending. It was then a question of creating the story “top-down” by decomposing it into chapters and further developing the threads through those chapters. I also deliberately tried to end each chapter with a cliff-hanger. At this point the ideas needed to be written down. More and more notes were added until eventually the whole book could be read through in outline form. Writing the story then just consisted of putting some words around each outline item. Simple!

Q          Are your characters based on real people?
A          No. All characters, settings and unusual objects used within WraithTalkers are from my imagination.

Q          What about marketing your book?
A          I’m well aware that any published book, if it’s not marketed properly, will not sell. It’s not sufficient to simply publish your book and sit back. You’ll end up selling nothing. I have a few ideas, so watch this space. I hope to report back in a future blog with my experiences.

Q          Will there be more books?
A          I hope so! WraithTalkers and the Secret of the Red Monk is designed to be the first in a series of adventures for the protagonists, Marigold and Gideon. The second adventure, WraithTalkers and the Mystery of the Singing Mermaid, is already plotted out in my head, but I’ve nothing written down. Perhaps I need another personal crisis. In reality I think the trigger will be if the first book gets a decent reception. I strongly suspect that, like the first, the second will have to be written entirely during the night, when all forms of tortured wraiths walk about…

Please feel free to ask me any more questions. If the same ones keep cropping up I might even add them to my FAQ… 🙂

Dave.

UK Amazon Store Link:             http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B006IG07D0
USA Amazon Store Link:            http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006IG07D0

The Reluctant Misanthrope

Once a year I like to retreat from the modern world. It’s the time I call my annual holiday.

It’s the one chance I get to withdraw from most aspects of contemporary life and I like to spend the time quietly contemplating the Universe and everything within it. I reflect on the year gone past and the year to come. It’s a time for me to recharge my spiritual batteries and enjoy the close company of immediate family.

I deliberately don’t keep up with the news. I watch no television. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t buy any newspapers. I even keep away from the Internet.

I also, as far as is possible, avoid other people.

It’s a bit of a cliché but I like to get back to nature. You must understand that I’m not talking here about discarding my clothes, building makeshift shelters out of branches, picking berries, trapping rabbits and gnawing on roots. I’m not completely stupid. But I do like to get in tune with the natural world. There’s something within me that wants to connect with nature at its vital levels, and when I do the resonance gives me some pretty unique feelings of contentment.

In recent years, in search of these fundamental feelings, the family and I have disappeared to the north-west mountainous region of Wales known as Snowdonia. The region is home to the tallest mountain in England and Wales, Snowdon. For those who don’t know, Snowdonia is one of the most unspoilt areas of the United Kingdom. It’s a designated National Park and any attempts to build or to alter the landscape in any way are severely restricted. If you like crowded beaches, theme parks, screaming families and scorching, blistering sunshine then Snowdonia is not for you. The rainfall in the region is legendary. Prevailing westerly winds bring clouds which release much of their moisture as they rise to cross the mountains. Sometimes this is a fine mist. Sometimes it’s a downpour. It’s always fresh and clean.

Mrs Bear-to-be and I rent a basic log cabin in a wooded mountainous area. It’s well away from all areas of any significant population. Not for me the mice in their million hordes, from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads. We like to be isolated.

At this point, and possibly to your surprise, I’m going to digress to talk about a computer game. On hearing this, I suspect some of you have roused yourselves and are paying a bit more attention. “This is more like it,” I hear some say. I suspect the rest of you – perhaps the majority – have just groaned and are seriously considering bailing out. If you fall into the latter camp, please humour me for a little while longer.

I must confess that personally I would rather sit facing a bare wall with a paper bag on my head than play most computer games, but my son recently persuaded me to take a look at an independent PC-based game called Minecraft. Without going into too many details, Minecraft creates each player a random computer-generated world and the player is left to explore the world at will. As we’re currently being geeky, I’ll get into character by mentioning that each world isn’t strictly random. It’s pseudo-random, but this needn’t concern most readers. Each world contains features such as grassy areas, woods, deserts, seas, rivers, waterfalls, hills, caves and even lava flows. The world is effectively infinite in nature; if you keep heading off in one direction the program will keep creating new (pseudo-random) scenery ahead of you, as far as your virtual eye can see.

When I first started exploring my own Minecraft world I immediately had a sense of isolation. Here I was, dropped like a speck of dust into an infinite landscape. But this feeling of loneliness was soon replaced by something far more exciting: a spirit of adventure. I was gazing at a vista which no other human had gazed upon before. I had materialised on a beach and I could see a coastline that begged to be explored. I saw a wooded area sweeping down to kiss the beach. I saw freshwater pools and I saw hills and rock formations. I immediately set off in my virtual world and climbed the nearest hill. The bay on the other side had a natural inlet fed by a small river. A small waterfall on the far side gushed out of a sheer rock face to fall directly into the bay. It was beautiful. There was more to explore and I wanted to press on.

I then experienced a strange, almost primeval feeling. This land, albeit virtual, had never before been seen by humans. The adventurous spirit within me rose up. My instincts told me to build some sort of permanent shelter here in this beautiful spot, but a significant part of me told me to move on. I suddenly felt as our ancient ancestors must have felt more than 20,000 years ago as they moved northwards out of Africa in search of fresh lands and food. Here was virgin land; it was incredibly exhilarating yet a little bit frightening at the same time. Strange feelings indeed about a mere computer game.

OK, let’s get back to Snowdonia and some semblance of reality, or pseudo-random reality, depending on your beliefs. Mrs Bear-to-be and my son and I like to do a bit of walking when we’re on holiday. A place we were keen to return to was the Roman Steps. These steps are located in a pass between two mountains in the Rhinog range. The Rhinogs run north-south towards the southern end of Snowdonia, and the Roman Steps cut squarely across them. There’s some dispute as to whether the steps were actually laid by the Romans but certainly they predate medieval times. They were laid to help establish a trading route through the Rhinogs, linking the coastal areas of the west to the fertile lands of the east.

The Roman Steps are reached by a journey that typically involves both car and foot. A long side road branches off from the main coastal route at the villageof Llanbedr. It leads directly up into the foothills of the Rhinogs. For the most part it is single-track and follows the course of the Afon Artro, a river of outstanding beauty. The road ends at the river’s source: Llyn Cwm Bychan, literally ‘lake of the little valley’. From here the journey to the Roman Steps is on foot; two miles of fairly steep climbing up a rough path through diverse countryside.

Llanbedr itself is a lovely village. A wonderful old gentleman used to sit against the old stone road bridge over the Afon Artro. To many he was known simply as ‘The Doctor’. He was called this because he was a retired GP, not because he bore any resemblance to the science-fiction hero of the same moniker. The Doctor used to lean forward on his walking stick and peer through thick glasses at the passers-by and the traffic, waving to the people he knew. Every now and then a coach full of kids, no doubt bound for some adventurous outdoor holiday, would pull into the garage just across the road. The Doctor would shuffle over and buy Mars Bars for the entire coach. That’s the sort of man he was. George Elliot puts it very powerfully in the last line of her Middlemarch novel, when she speaks of Dorothea: “Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the Earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” In a similar vein this all-too-real Doctor was, for me, a real hero.

I love the river known as the Afon Artro. Its tortured course twists from Llyn Cwm Bychan down to the sea through the most glorious scenery. The water crashes around countless rocks and boulders which litter the river bed, yet somehow it still manages to love and caress each one. It’s not a big or grand or ostentatious river, it’s simply beautiful. It’s not just me that thinks so. A very dear and most learned friend of mine is an accomplished artist. His paintings (those which he hasn’t had the heart to sell) adorn every wall in his house. A few years back he made me a very generous offer: he told me to choose any painting in the house and it would be mine. Despite my protestations, for I knew every painting was precious to him, he was insistent. Lurking at the back of his hallway I found lovely large pastel of a river scene. I remarked on its beauty. “It’s the Afon Artro” he replied. “It’s such a beautiful river.” The picture now has pride of place in my house.

At the top of Llyn Cwm Bychan the local farmer has generously turned a small area of land into a car park. When Mrs Bear-to-be, my son and I arrived at the spot, early on a calm and bright Thursday morning, the area was empty. I parked up and we soon struck out to the Roman Steps. As usual I’d drawn the short straw (out of a choice of one) and was equipped with a rucksack containing a comprehensive picnic.

We’d only just set up the path when I heard a car pull into the car park behind us. I noted the car had a foreign number plate, but we didn’t linger and pressed on.

After crossing a small stream, the path climbs a hill into a wooded glade. The light and the sounds and the smell of this glade cannot be adequately described. Perhaps only Tolkein could do it justice. The light is dappled with various shades of dark green, all of them gloomy and eerie. Moss-covered rock formations are interspersed with ancient gnarled trees whose roots have a twisted grip on the landscape. Their claw-like branches seem to embrace the very atmosphere. It’s the sort of place where you could meet a goblin or an elf and think nothing of it.

The bear family passed through the glade without being captured and exited by climbing a high wooden stile. The path continues over open heathery ground, and for the next half mile it snakes about quite wildly in its course as it climbs the hill. A stream is crossed four times, each crossing marked by a little stone bridge. The going is still relatively easy and there is time to appreciate the purple heather and the natural scrub and the approaching mountains.

It was a particularly still morning the day we climbed. Away from the glade, and sheltered by the surrounding mountains, the path becomes deathly silent. We stopped and nothing could be heard, not even a bird. I eventually detected a faint buzzing. It grew louder until a bee flew past. It seemed as loud as a motorbike. It was a good twenty seconds before the area fell silent again.

My son and I remarked at how similar the scenery was to Minecraft. The contours of the land and the rocky faces of the mountains are mirrored in the game with remarkable precision. I briefly pondered whether the retreating glacial ice-flows which had carved this landscape were random, pseudo-random or something else.

In Minecraft you can make yourself a pick axe, and once equipped you can go mining for precious metals and minerals. Both my son and I remarked on how we wished we had pick axes to go tunnelling. Mrs Bear-to-be gave me a look which led me to suspect she wasn’t of the same opinion.

We pressed on and eventually passed through an old hinged wooden gate, after which the path becomes rockier and even steeper. By this time my son was bounding ahead, as youthful and sure-footed as a mountain goat. Mrs Bear-to-be was also making good progress, being as she is very light-of-foot. I was beginning to breathe more deeply and perspire. OK, I’ll admit it; I was sweating my own little streams. Mrs Bear-to-be can usually cover ground very lightly and there’s little evidence she’s been there. I’m – ahem – a little heavier, especially when lugging a picnic, and I was clumping along a bit awkwardly.

Mrs Bear-to-be and I paused to get our breath. Well, it was more my breath actually. We glanced back down the path and could see a man and a woman some way behind us, maybe a quarter of a mile or more down the hill. It was the Europeans. They’d obviously had a delayed start but were moving fast. I’m a little ashamed to admit it but the journey to the Roman Steps, and the high-point of the pass, had now become a race. Mrs Bear-to-be and I pressed on and tried to catch up with the mountain goat.

The Roman Steps are reached quite quickly after the gate. They’re pretty unremarkable in truth, but their undoubted antiquity conjures up exciting images of centurions and foot-soldiers marching in single file across the terrain. The reality is that it was probably little more than a few peasants and a couple of donkeys but it’s nice to dream. From the Roman Steps the route to the top of the pass seems to be short, but it’s one of those ‘false dawn’ situations where you reach one peak, only to find you’ve got to press on and climb another. The path is rocky, steep and quite awkward in places, but it should be accessible to most able-bodied people.

The summit of the pass was eventually reached, and I’m pleased to report it was reached before the Europeans. In fact the Bear family was nicely perched on the most favourable rock eating sandwiches and supping coffee when the Germans (as it turned out) arrived. They were a lovely couple in their early sixties. They took their walking very seriously and had better footwear and more rugged clothes than us. They also had a shabbier rucksack – always a sign of serious intent. The couple were incorporating the Roman Steps as part of a wider tour of the Welsh countryside. They were following an old German guide book to the region, and were confident enough to follow its rough directions without a map. I suspect there was a proper map, compass and undoubtedly a GPS unit in the rucksack, but I didn’t like to pry. Our conversation was conducted in English as, despite working for a German company in the past (and even taking a few evening lessons), all I can remember from those times is “Wie gehts?” Regrettably, after our introductions in English, I never had the opportunity to slip my greeting into the conversation to impress them.

We spent a happy few minutes chatting to the Germans and I was at the point of asking them to share our rock and our coffee when they announced that they had to be moving on. They had a lot of ground to cover. They consulted their guide book and we bid each other a cheery farewell. The Germans disappeared down a rocky slope and I wanted to shout “Wie gehts?” after them, more as a show of brotherhood than anything else, but I managed to resist.

The rest of the picnic was consumed by the Bear family with much idle pleasure. From the summit of the pass the views are outstanding. To the west is the silvery blue of Cardigan Bay, with the Irish Sea away and beyond. To the east there’s a two-mile forested valley. It’s a beautiful spot.

From our picnic location it was only about a 20 minute scrabble to Llyn Morwynnion, the Lake of the Maidens (see my last blog), but in truth the going would have been soggy and quite taxing, so we elected to take a leisurely return to the car instead.

The journey down was marginally quicker than the climb up, but what made it interesting was the variety of people we met. It was by now early afternoon, and lots of day trippers were tackling the Roman Steps as part of their holiday adventures.

The first person we met was a lone thirty-something lady, who turned out to be the scout for a larger family group. She was relieved when we told her she was only 15 minutes from the summit. The whole family subsequently passed with smiles and nods, all apart from two sullen gents at the back who had obviously had enough of climbing. Their constant grumbling probably explained the break-away scout at the head of the group.

We then encountered a cheery family of four on the Roman Steps themselves: a Mum, a Dad and two pre-teen daughters. The girls were excitedly examining something on one of the stone blocks. It turned out to be a minute piece of Victorian graffiti: “Tom, 1867”. It’s interesting that in the 1500-or-so years that the steps have rested here, the only sign of vandalism is from the strict Victorians.

At the hinged wooden gate we met another sixty-something couple. The lady of the party held the gate open for us. We spent a happy few minutes chatting as she leant on the gate. It was as casual as if we were neighbours chatting over a garden fence. We remarked that holding the gate open for people and chatting to all that passed through would be a rather nice way of spending the day.

We stumbled on down the rocky path over the open heather until we encountered a group of very interesting people who had left the path and were examining something in the bushes. It turned out to be a group of learning disabled young adults, led by a sun-wizened gentleman who was wearing a rather large bush hat. He rather put me in mind of Les Hiddins, aka Bush Tucker Man.

For those who don’t know, Les Hiddins had a TV show in the late 1980s and early 1990s where he travelled the Australian bush and pointed out how to survive using only the available natural resources. Les was a veteran of the Australian Army and was commissioned to write a survival manual for the Australian Forces (mainly the Air Force) in case any personnel crashed and found themselves stranded many hundreds of miles from civilisation. Les was normally very astute and drew much of his knowledge from the indigenous aborigines, however he famously ate some berries recommended in an old Victorian handbook and very nearly poisoned himself. Hmmmm, those pesky Victorians again.

Anyway, like the Australian original, this English Bush Tucker Man wore a rather large and practical bush hat. He was also showing the assembled group how to gather some tucker. On this occasion it was some wild bilberries as an accompaniment to lunch. I must confess that I didn’t even know what a wild bilberry looked like, let alone have the knowledge to spot a bush full of them. The Bear family didn’t try one (I was put in mind of Victorian handbooks and how even bush tucker men are fallible) but apparently they were quite small and sour for this time of year.

The Bear family continued their trek back through the elfish glade and back to the car without further incident.

That evening I sat on the front porch of the log cabin and watched the sun setting rather nicely over the Rhinogs. The Bear family was about me and I reflected on the day. It had been hard work but ultimately very enjoyable making the trek back up to the Roman Steps. The scenery is unspoilt and utterly beautiful. But if I’m honest there were two things which gave me the most pleasure: sharing the whole experience with the Bear family, and meeting the diverse and wonderfully interesting people on the journey back.

In the past I have been to the Roman Steps by myself. I’ve climbed much higher than the mountain pass, right up to a remote lake rarely visited by any living person. This has been wonderful and beautiful in a certain sense, but ultimately when I’ve gazed across the quiet, calm waters my soul has felt as cold and as lonesome as the lake itself.

And so it is with Minecraft. It is a wonderful game, but having played it for a while you suddenly reach a point where there’s something missing. And that thing is people. You travel and explore the most wonderful scenery, but there’s not a single soul to share it with. The Swedish company behind Minecraft, Mojang, have come to the same conclusion. With the latest version they’ve added things like ruined villages and abandoned mines to be discovered. Even these empty signs of human habitation are wonderful when you happen across them. With the next version they’re going to introduce characters who you can interact with. I can’t wait.

Sitting on the porch I remembered the German couple, the families, the gate lady, the English Bush Tucker Man, the learning disabled people, my artist friend and I even remembered The Doctor.

In the setting sunlight I realised I’m not very good at being a misanthrope. I’m too fond of people.

Lake of the Maidens

Ahead of my forthcoming holiday in Snowdonia, I’ve written a poem.
It’s something a bit different for me. An experiment really.
I’m looking forward to returning to the Lake of the Maidens…

Lake of the Maidens

 Don’t go up to the lake, they said
Fear and dread I could read in their eyes
Don’t drift up there at any strange time
To gaze at the reflected skies

My women know best, I thought
They’ve looked after me e’er so long
Entertaining me well with womanly guiles
With music with dance and with song

Happy I am in their company
All played out in soft dappled light
And when night drapes a shroud all around
In covenly breast rests us tight

But a man’s mind can oft drift
Cold boredom a terrible curse
Round idle heads go the thoughts
To leave and to seek the obverse

So up to the lake I struck hard
Leaving wails far beneath me below
To the top I surged, urging myself on
My angels too frightened to follow

Excitement tingled me over
My curiosity strangely aroused
Thoughts had I none for all but myself
My mission so blindly espoused

The lake was bright in the sun
Like the shimmer of a silvery cloak
With creases, swept folds and yet more
Strange shapes all crooked and broke

But then in a place of pure calm
A blurred image suddenly came clear
Beyond the sheen of the soft glassy wall
A child’s face, contorted with fear

She stared at me and I pondered her
She screamed and I flickered away
The muffled sound of young fearfulness
Still hounds in my dull ear today

Ma-ma, she said, in her fright
Ma-ma you have to come quick!
There’s a man in the water; I’m sure that he’s dead
Ma-ma, I’m going to be sick

Adventure has left me alone for the while
Content am I now in my days
Women stroke my hair ‘mongst the weeds
And sing in melodious ways

Don’t go up to the lake, I say
Fear and dread they can read in my eyes
Don’t drift up there at any strange time
To gaze at the reflected skies

In memory of the lone hiker who disappeared on the shores of Llyn Morwynion (Lake of the Maidens). Llyn Morwynion is located high in the mountainous foothills of Snowdon, in a range known as the Rhinogs. Legend has it that, long ago, a marauding tribe crossed the Rhinogs and kidnapped the women from the West. The women escaped and tried to return, but all were drowned in Llyn Morwynion in the ensuing chase.

First Impressions

I drive a Ford Fiesta. I’d like you to stop and think about that for a moment. Spend a minute or so contemplating the images that have just been conjured up within your own mind. Try to picture the person I am; the sort of person who drives a Ford Fiesta.

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Good, you’re back. Hopefully by now you’ve formed some sort of opinion of me. Not too bad, I hope.

As humans we instinctively categorise every new person we meet. It’s an evolutionary trait; we have to identify potential friends from potential foes. Historically we’ve had to make life-or-death assumptions about people, and this continues today with our First Impressions.

Like it or not, everyone can’t help making some sort of assessment of every new person we encounter. We categorise that person and immediately place them in some sort of internal pigeon-hole. I personally believe that these pigeon holes are different for everyone. They start off small in number, for example a baby might start off with two pigeon holes: “Mother” and “Not Mother”, but this rapidly increases with experience to things like “Mother”, “Father”, “People I like” and “People I don’t like”, and so on.

As we get older, so our internal pigeon holes increase in diversity and number. They certainly increase with experience.

We are instinctively very good at recognising faces. It only takes the average human forty milliseconds or so to process a face. This is significantly shorter if the face is fearful – again, this is a hangover from our violent evolutionary past. If you walk into a room of ten people it takes the average person less than a second to pick up the general mood – one of friendliness, hostility or indifference. This happens entirely through a quick scan of the faces.

The important point here is that, as well as being brilliant at detecting where and what a face is, we quickly ascertain people’s emotions. The position and shape of people’s features, especially mouths, eyes and eyebrows, quickly signify if that person is happy, sad, thoughtful, angry, upset, bored, frightened, etc.

If we’re meeting someone for the first time we almost subconsciously use this information to place someone in a pigeon-hole, even if we then move on later to put them in a different one.

Do we go further than this? There is the obvious next stage of whether or not that person’s face is appealing to us. It may have certain characteristics that attract us. This is subjective but, in general, there are certain features that universally appeal.

But can we take the next step? Can we rely on our senses to determine what a person is really like just from their appearance? Can we divine someone’s true inner self?

At this point we need to stop and consider what I mean by what a person is really like? For this we need to touch on the id, the ego and the superego.

In my simple terms the id is the raw impulses of what a person is really like, the ego is the sense of someone’s self, and the superego acts as your conscience, keeping the id under control. For simplicity I’m going to group these three qualities together by calling them what a person is really like, or their inner self if you like.

If they want to, most people can keep what they’re really like carefully hidden from a cursory examination of a face, such as what occurs with First Impressions. Sometimes it takes years of living with someone to discover their true inner self, especially the id part. For many this can be a source of great pleasure (I’m thinking happy marriages here) but for others it can be immensely distressing.

So, is it possible to deduce more about what a person is really like just within a few seconds? As well as facial cues, in modern times I think we use lots of additional information to help us with our accuracies in categorising, or pigeon-holing people. The general appearance of someone is a big factor here. Someone’s hair (how it’s styled, its length, if it’s coloured or not, etc.), clothes (type, quality, colour, etc.), shoes (type, quality, colour, etc.), jewellery (rings, piercings, watches, glasses, etc.) and not least of all their general appearance (physical shape, personal hygiene, etc.) are all clues, and we tend to use them.

Even after the first few seconds, body language soon gives us additional pointers about a person and their feelings; this includes all the well-publicised material about eye contact, the way people mirror actions, the direction someone’s feet are pointing, and so on.

Lots of people like to think they don’t confirm to norms, and especially the young like to rebel against perceived conventions, but the hard truth is that everyone gets pigeon-holed by everyone else. We instinctively categorise everyone from a nudist riding a bike with a duck on his head, to the old gentleman sitting quietly at home in his cardigan and slippers.

OK, it’s all perhaps been a bit heavy so far. Earlier in this blog I mentioned that we use our experience when pigeon-holing people. I also believe we use our wisdom, but only where we’ve got it. This distinction between experience and wisdom is going to get important, so let me try to illustrate it with a true story.

When I had just entered my teenage years, I took part in some out-of-school lessons run by our local vicar. I have to assure you that this was not because I was a bad boy. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me. After all, I drive a Ford Fiesta.

The vicar was a formidable character. He drank pink gins like you or I drink water. In his study, where we had the lessons, hung a large photograph of his younger-looking self in full military uniform. It was before his devotional days. A Japanese general was honourably surrendering his sword to the vicar. The vicar had been a big player in the Allied sweep through Burma during the Second World War. As I say, a formidable character. As First Impressions go, anybody shown into that study would have been mightily impressed with the vicar without ever having met him.

During one lesson the vicar gave us a thundering speech about why we should pay attention to him and his preaching. It hinged on him being wiser than us. He had certainly experienced a lot in his life – as evidenced by the picture in his study – but I didn’t agree with his inference that experience equated directly to wisdom. I put up my hand to question him. I said that surely wisdom came with a meaningful interpretation of that experience, and not just the experience itself.

I suddenly felt as that Japanese General must have done all those years ago. The vicar laid into me with a tirade that seemed to shake the very room we were in. It was as if I’d questioned his whole military career. He left me in no doubt – or he thought he left me in no doubt – that wisdom just somehow magically appeared with experience. End of story. I kept quiet and metaphorically surrendered my sword, but privately I was thinking something else. I suspect it had been the same for the Japanese General.

Experience of life tells us many things, but I still believe it’s a meaningful interpretation of our experiences which gives us wisdom.

Let’s now move back to cars to see the difference between experience and wisdom in the context of First Impressions.

I love cars. I’ve always loved cars. My son is also passionate about cars. When he was a toddler I’d have to chase after him into the local toyshop where he’d always make a bee-line for the model cars. The first time I met the shop owner she said “Ah, he’s a car boy.”

It turned out that she placed young boys into one of only three pigeon-holes: those who liked cars, those who liked trains and those who liked dinosaurs. I’m tempted to make a joke here about women still placing men into one of three pigeon-holes, and perhaps not even that many, but I shall resist!

Just as someone’s clothes and jewellery can be expressions of a person’s personality, I believe their choice of car, its condition and how it’s being driven in the prevailing conditions speaks volumes about the inner self of the driver. People tend to buy cars that not only represent their personality, but their hopes and aspirations too. Car purchases are usually one of life’s major investments. People spend as much as they can – sometimes more than they can afford – to create that statement about who they are and what they wish to become.

Car makers understand this. They produce cars for certain demographics, and use every marketing tool available to shift cars to those people. Car manufacturers, through their advertisers, try to sell something more than the car itself. They try to sell something which appeals directly to their customers: it could be a lifestyle, a place in our society, a sense of safety; in the end it’s something that appeals to a person’s inner self.

Now let’s get back to the wisdom part. I believe that people can be very experienced drivers and be perfectly safe all of their life, without ever even understood how a car works, but many people can bring some extra wisdom to the analysis of other road users.

It’s all to do with identifying potential threats on the road. With almost every car I encounter I perform an instant (and almost unconscious) assessment of the car and the way it’s being driven in the current conditions to form an assessment of the driver. This results in judgement of what the car is going to do next. It’s all about minimising risk.

As an example, I do a fair amount of weekend motorway driving. The biggest threat to my safety is usually ‘weekenders’, those people who are relatively inexperienced when it comes to driving in the modern motorway’s speed strata. I try to use my wisdom to identify these people long before I encounter them.

I’ve no intention of creating a long list of cars here and poking fun at people. People in glass houses and all that. Instead I’m going to return my own example: I drive a Ford Fiesta. Let’s see if it helps in deducing my inner self.

So far I really haven’t given you very much to go on – just the brand and model name of a car – but hopefully you’ve already formed some sort of opinion. Let me give you some more brief information about the car and try to help you some more:

  1. Ford Fiesta
    Hmmm, The Fiesta has been in production since 1976 until the present day, in six different guises. Usually bought as a second car, or a reasonably priced main car for those with small or no families.
  2. It’s five years old.
    Aha. The classic Mark V model. Targeted at female drivers, but not exclusively.
  3. It’s silver in colour.
    Pretty safe choice of colour. The buyer likes to think they’re a little bit different – classy even – but the bottom line is that it’s one of the most popular colours for contemporary cars.
  4. It’s a 1.4 petrol model.
    Aha! No sporting pretensions here. A mid-range petrol engine. A nice safe bet. Not too underpowered (like the 1.25 or 1.3 models) and more economical than the 1.6 and 2.0 models. Nice, safe practicality is starting to emerge.
    It’s also not a diesel, so perhaps the refinement of the petrol overrides the savings on fuel, or perhaps the conservative owner doesn’t understand diesels.
  5. It’s the limited edition Zetec Climate model (only a true buff would spot the exterior trim differences).
    Mmmm, it’s not the basic model, so someone is willing to pay a bit extra for air conditioning and a few other extras like alloy wheels. The Zetec engine is also well thought of. Useful stuff, so perhaps the driver has a little bit more disposable income than we might otherwise have imagined.
  6. It’s clean and tidy.
    The driver is obviously proud of the car and likes to be seen in a clean car.

If I were to sum up all of these generalisations I would say a safe, dependable, practical and popular choice of car, driven by someone who is also “safe”, practical, and dare I say it – pretty predictable. The car is usually either the second car for a family, or a lone female of just about any age, but probably middle-aged or a little bit older, because the Mark V Fiesta was trumped a little bit by some sexier-looking (and sexier-marketed) contemporaries, which tended to attract the younger females. I’d say the driver falls into the average income bracket. Someone who is probably your regular nine-to-fiver.

Does this sound like me? We’ll return to the Ford Fiesta later.

Now I want to consider the question ‘Do first impressions matter?’ They can. Very much so.

I sometimes visit local schools, where I waffle on to bored teenagers about the working life most are about to enter. As part of this I always stress the importance of a good Curriculum Vitae (CV), coupled with a smart presentation at interviews.

I usually recount the tale when, a few years back, I advertised a position at the Company I was working for at the time. I received fifty applications. I knew that I only had time to interview five people at most, so it was all down to the CVs.

Within ten minutes thirty-five were scooped straight into the bin, purely because the applicants weren’t competitive on qualifications or experience. At this point you can usually see the straight-B students shift slightly in their seats.

It’s then down to picking five from the remaining fifteen CVs. The particular position I had advertised demanded a high level of accuracy and attention to detail. Therefore anyone with even a SINGLE spelling mistake on their CV was also scooped into the bin. If someone can’t be bothered to spell-check their own CV then why would they bother at work? At this point you normally notice the straight-A students exchange worried glances.

To sort out the final five it’s purely down to the feeling you get from the CVs. What is the person really going to be like? Even the choice of font and paragraph style, together with the paper the CV is printed on give clues here.

And what of the interview itself? It goes without saying that this is where First Impressions really count. I recently interviewed a young man for a job, and it was immediately obvious that he was unusual. Perhaps the kindest thing I can say is that he was obviously not treading the same path that other people follow in life. As a light-hearted example I’ll mention his shoes. Shoes have always been the amateur-first-impressionist’s first port of call. ‘You can tell a lot about someone by their shoes’, so the saying goes. Well this young applicant had rather pointy shoes. Now I know they’ve been the fashion recently, but Ali Baba would have been jealous of this applicant’s. I secretly harboured a desire to see if they’d wrap around my pencil and could be made to curl back. Anyway, I gave him the job. I needed someone who was creative and “thought outside of the box” (I’m a big believer in diverse teams). He hasn’t let me down and his work has been inspirational.

What other forms of First Impressions are there? My mind immediately moves to the Arts. I can recall three paintings which have had an earth-shattering impact on me. I mean the sort of experience when, on first viewing, you feel as if you’ve been picked up off the ground, given a hard shaking, and then placed down again in a different place. The sort of experience where you know that something has changed and your life is going to be different from now on.

The same sort of experience has happened with me maybe a dozen or so times with pieces of music (on the first hearing) and about a dozen or so times with cinematic films. Don’t forget we’re talking about life-changing experiences here, not just a buzz you get when you leave the cinema.

But with the written word it’s different. I have lost count of the number of times a book, or an article, or even a sentence, has given me the same experience. The power of the written word – and with this medium it’s often the First Impressions which are the most intense – cannot be underestimated.

The written word really warrants a book in itself (if that’s not in danger of going unstable through positive feedback) but I do want to touch on two things. The first thing is my personal proof of the power of words.

I had been single for a while, quietly minding my own business and raising my son as best I could, when I heard that a friend-of-a-friend of mine had been doing some matchmaking. My photo had somehow found its way to a prospective Mrs Bear. I think the conversation went something like this:

(Friend-of-a-friend shoves grainy photo under prospective Mrs Bear’s nose)
Friend-of-a-friend: “What do you think of this one?”
Prospective Mrs Bear: “I suppose he’s not too hideous. What happens now?”

When I got to hear about this, I thought I’d better write a courteous note to the prospective Mrs Bear. After all, a gentleman always tries to save the embarrassment of a lady. It turned out that the prospective Mrs Bear lived in Surrey, more than one hundred miles away. So I sent her an email and she sent one back. We wrote to each other at least once every day for three weeks and it was soon apparent that we were getting on really well. I eventually tootled on down to Surrey to meet her.

Prospective Mrs Bear is now Mrs-Bear-to-be after I proposed to her four years later. But here is the thing of interest: Mrs-Bear-to-be swears that she fell in love with me just through our email exchanges in those first three weeks. She fell in love with me before we actually met. Words can indeed be powerful.

The second thing I wanted to touch on is Twitter. Again, the Twitter experience could fill a book, but I just wanted to point out something related to First Impressions. Twitter to me is like a big Universe which is populated with countless millions of tiny stars. Each star is an individual, a Twitter user, who on joining the Universe is initially left to float about randomly. When a star finds another with similar interests, or something which attracts one of them, the two stars gravitate to each other and a bond is made. Clusters of stars form in this same way, in much the same way that people make friends if left in a room full of strangers. If you find a group or an individual that’s not to your taste, you disentangle yourself and float on. When you find something of interest you hang around. Of course there are the massive suns, like celebrities, that attract many, but it’s the smaller lone stars which interest me.

What is it that causes someone to pause and contemplate someone else? It’s the First Impressions which are important. The photograph, representation or avatar which someone uses obviously tells us something about that person, but it’s a quick scan down the timeline which shows us whether we really want to rest awhile. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I agree, but on that scale a single tweet is worth at least as much.

OK, let’s recap briefly and try to draw some meaningful conclusion from all this. We have seen how we pigeon-hole people from birth and we generally get better at it through experience. It’s hard to determine someone’s inner self, but we use lots of methods to help us. We have also seen that looks are important if we want to make a good First Impression, yet there is also much information to be obtained from other sources. We have also seen that there are other sorts of First Impressions, with possibly the most important of these being the written word.

And we have learned that I drive a Ford Fiesta. At this point I have to make a small confession. It is true that at the moment I am driving a Ford Fiesta. But it is not my car. I have lent my real car to someone else for a while, and I have borrowed their Ford Fiesta in return.

So everything you might have assumed, had you seen me driving around in this Ford Fiesta, would be completely and utterly and hopelessly wrong. And this is where we get to the real conclusion. Experience and our instincts lead us to depend a lot on First Impressions. We can’t help but immediately put people in pigeon-holes. But I believe the wise – those who have reflected and learned something from their experiences – would never, ever make that mistake.

What car do I really drive? Well, I’m not going to tell you. I might just reveal something of my true inner self.

Mixed up on holiday

BearNecessitude gets mixed up on holiday:

Phew, what a mixed up holiday for BearNecessitude.

Some of you will have worked it out very quickly. For those who think I’m barking mad, try rearranging the letters in BearNecessitude. You’ll find that the caption to each picture is an anagram.

In search of Gaele

This brief posting aims to give a few insights into my previous blog, Gaele.
If you have not already done so, I suggest you read that first.

* Spoiler alert: go no further if you’re happy with your own understanding of the story *

Gaele was written to have many levels of understanding:

  1. It exists as a self-contained story.
  2. The story is woven around, and expands, the lyrics for ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles. The obvious theme of the song, and many words and ideas expressed within the lyrics, appear in Gaele. If you want to read the lyrics, they’re here: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eagles/hotelcalifornia.html
    And if you haven’t already, think about why the protagonists are named Don and Gaele.
  3. It was written to further the ideas that Don Henley wanted to get across with ‘Hotel California’, namely the dark side of the American dream and excesses in America, in particular the hedonistic world of the music industry in the late ’70s. Gaele brings these ideas a little more up to date.
  4. Now here’s few questions to get you thinking a bit harder (and from this point you’re on your own):
    • What might the demon be a metaphor for?
    • Is the demon really a demon? If not, which character might the demon be and why?
    • Is it significant when the demon appears?
    • What might the old couple in the bar be a metaphor for?
    • Are the lyrics of Reelin’ In The Years significant?
    • Is Reelin’ In The Years significant for anything else?
    • How many times are different wood types mentioned? Why?

There’s other stuff as well, but I think I’ve said too much already. Happy searching!

Gaele

Gaele. Name which means joyful. Celtic in origin.

WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS ADULT THEMES WHICH
MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR ALL READERS.

Don raised his head and contemplated his surroundings.

From his vantage point, at one end of a polished mahogany bar, he had a good view of the luxurious hotel lounge. It was exquisitely and expensively decorated. Rare and original oil paintings adorned one of the walls. On another, an ornate arched doorway led out to a lobby. Small circular walnut tables were generously spaced out on the plush maroon carpet. An old couple sat at one, their drinks placed neatly in front.

Opposite the bar, along the full length of the room, a set of vintage French windows kept out the Californian warmth. Beyond the windows stood a courtyard where a party was in full swing. Happy people were singing and swaying to Reelin’ in the Years, although the noise was largely muted.

“Record company types,” said the bartender.
“Hmmm?” questioned Don in an absent-minded way.
“From Los Angeles. They’re here every summer. Man, they know how to party.”
“Ahh.”
Don smiled weakly at the bartender, who went back to polishing a glass.

Don felt empty. He felt as if he were in a vacuum. He had driven four hundred miles to get away from her. Four hundred miles to give him time – and space – to think.

He still couldn’t believe it. His wife of thirty-five years had left him for her life coach. Don thought there was some irony there, but he was too tired to work it out.

Don surveyed the spirits behind the counter. His eyes drifted to the single malt whiskies. He spotted an independently bottling: Ardbeg, 1969 distillation. Perfect, he thought, something with a bit of body.

A grandfather clock in the lobby started to chime. Don looked at his watch; it was 6pm. He raised his head to signal the bartender, but before he could do so he noticed a figure standing in the arched doorway. It was a young woman. She stood motionless as if hesitant to enter the room. Her eyes flicked nervously about until they alighted on Don. She smiled shyly, and Don smiled back. After a short awkward pause the young woman walked over to the bar.

Don thought that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Tall and elegant, with an exquisite crushed black velvet dress that stopped just short of her knees. Her long chestnut hair framed her youthful soft features to perfection.

“Hi,” said Don, and he motioned to an adjacent stool.
The young woman smiled and sat herself down with an effortless grace. She held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Gaele.”
Gaele’s fragrance preceded her touch by a second. Both gave Don a warm feeling inside and he shifted slightly in his seat.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked quickly.
“Pink champagne. Thanks”

It took only a moment for Don to look at Gaele in more detail. She was maybe twenty-five, with a clear natural complexion. Long eyelashes adorned smiling, shining hazelnut eyes. A large diamond pendant lay around her neck as if it were the most natural place in the world. Matching earrings glistened through her hair. Gaele exuded expensive taste.

“What brings you here?” she asked.
“It’s a long story,” sighed Don.
“Well, I’m in no hurry.”
Don looked at Gaele and felt something which he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. He felt as if he were falling in love.

Don and Gaele chatted and drank for hours. Don felt as if he’d lost thirty years. Gaele was attentive and was giving every sign that she was thoroughly enjoying his company.

The grandfather clock in the distant lobby chimed eleven. Gaele fixed Don with an utterly charming smile and took his hand as she leaned forward.
“Would you like to come back to my room?” she whispered.
Don tried to sober himself up a little as he surveyed the loveliness in front of him.
“I can’t think of anything nicer,” he replied, and started to move.
Gaele squeezed his hand. “Don… listen. You do know… you do know that you’re going to have to pay me some money, don’t you?”
Don remained motionless for some time. He surveyed Gaele in all her loveliness. His heart had sunk, but the drink had cushioned its fall.
“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, money is no object.”

Gaele took Don by the hand and led him across the lounge. He became aware, for the first time in hours, that the revellers in the courtyard were still partying. He half thought he saw a naked girl through the window, but the moment was gone as Gaele led him away.

“Do you live here?” asked Don, feeling embarrassed as soon as he had asked the question. The couple were now walking down a long corridor with bedrooms on either side.
“Sometimes it feels like my home. Sometimes it feels like my prison,” replied Gaele. She went on to add: “It’s my choice.”

Turning down another corridor, the couple soon stood before room 101. Gaele fumbled for a key in her small black clutch-bag and in that brief moment Don started to question what he was doing. His mind flicked briefly back to his wife, but by now the door was open and Gaele was kissing him with a tenderness he had all but forgotten.

Gaele’s room was lit with candles and, hesitating again, Don had a sudden feeling that he was like a fly being woven into the spider’s web. It was obvious that Gaele was well prepared for someone tonight.

Don’s nervousness fell away with Gaele’s dress. From a mirror positioned just behind, he could simultaneously see her from the back and the front. He smiled. A deep, resigned, surrendering smile. Gaele went to him softly and without a sound. Don stroked her back and felt the scars.

————————–

Don found himself back in the hotel corridor. It somehow seemed different to him. A bit cheaper and less plush than he remembered.

As he swayed he could hear revellers behind the endless closed doors. He reasoned it must be the people from the courtyard. The party was still in full swing but now behind the privacy of closed doors.

All of a sudden a door just in front and to the right of him flew open. Two naked girls fell out, laughing. They looked at Don in drunken surprise and then started squealing loudly, bending over almost double in their mirth. Before Don could move or say anything, the girls had each taken one of his arms and were pulling him towards the darkened room. Don could hear laughter and loud music from within. He was instinctively hesitant but the girls were pulling too hard.

Inside the room a there were perhaps twenty naked people in various embraces, but what really caught Don’s eye was the makeshift altar at one end of the room. Lit up by candles, a demonic red-skinned figure was on its stomach, being held down by four naked men and a woman. Another man was slowly cutting slices into the demon’s back with a knife. Don’s stomach tightened with horror, but this was magnified a thousand times when he realised the demon was not someone in costume. It had white glistening horns which were being held firmly by the woman. As Don watched, she wrenched the head around so the demon now stared at Don. A broad grin came upon the demon’s face and Don turned to run.

Don woke with a start. He sat bolt upright. He was panting heavily and his body felt wet with cold sweat. He looked at the candles around him and suddenly remembered where he was. He reached over and felt Gaele. Warm, soft and sleeping quietly. Don closed his eyes with a sigh. It had all been a very, very bad dream.

————————–

In the three months following his diagnosis with HIV-1, Don worked hard to clear his affairs. Assets that could be liquidated quickly were already with various charities. The rest was in the hands of his lawyers. He knew it was wrapped up in a legal web so tight it would be years before his wife saw a cent.

Don set off on the desert highway just as it was turning dark. The soft-top was down on his Mercedes. He was ready for the four hundred mile drive. Don wanted to feel the cool wind in his hair; he wanted to feel ALIVE.

There was a warm smell of colitis, rising up through the air, just as he caught sight of the shimmering hotel in the distance.

“Relax,” said the night man, as he scanned the board behind him. “It’s here somewhere… ah, here it is! Key 101.”
Don took the key with a smile.
“Just one more thing, Sir,” continued the night man. “You haven’t said how long you’ll be staying.”
“Oh,” chuckled Don, “it’s so good I may never leave!”
The porter laughed back and waved him away.

The three hundred pills didn’t take long to swallow. Each batch was helped down with wash from a bottle of Ardbeg 1969. Don settled back on the bed and looked over at the mirror. A red demon with a big wide smile looked back. Don was too tired to care. He turned over and lay on his side. Gaele’s warm, soft hand held his own until he drifted off to a beautiful, black, velvety sleep.

For @editorempress
May she find new interest in the song. (http://singlecynic.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/one-big-classic-mistake/)

Should we be surprised by coincidence?

We are usually surprised when a coincidence happens. It often amuses or delights us. Perhaps we bump into that friend we haven’t seen for a while, or we hear the same name or phrase twice in one day, or we win a small amount on the lottery.

Most coincidences are small. Occasionally they can be unexpected and very dramatic. Often they can have far-reaching consequences that persist over generations, for example I certainly wouldn’t be writing this if my parents hadn’t been accidentally introduced to each other all those years ago.

Coincidences can also be unwelcome. Who hasn’t been the victim of an accident, which on another day under similar circumstances, wouldn’t have occurred? We often call it being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Superstitious people tend to look at coincidences as signs from God, or some other hidden force. They wonder if they’ve been singled out for some reason. Superstitions like this are nonsense of course. Coincidences are all about mathematical probability.

Should we be surprised by coincidence?

When I was in Secondary School, I was amazed when the Maths teacher declared one day “I bet that two children in this class have the same birthday”.

We looked at him as if he was some sort of lunatic. Out of our class of only twenty-four children, what were the chances that two shared the same birthday? A quick mental calculation told me that there would be an average of two birthdays per month in the class. For any given month, what are the chances of those being on the same day? Just about zero, I thought. If the teacher had actually been taking bets I would have been first in the queue, offering my tuck shop money in return for a betting slip.

You can thus imagine everyone’s surprise when, after a straw poll of the class, we found out Simkins (minor) and Spotty Trevethick were both born on the same day in July. How could this be? It seemed to go against all reason. I struggled to make sense of it. After all there were only twenty-four people in the class. The teacher didn’t help by standing there with a smug grin on his face, but at least I had the consolation of retaining my tuck shop money.

It turns out that the teacher was making a reasonable bet. For a class of twenty-four children, the odds are better than fifty-fifty that two kids in the class will have the same birthday.

If the class size is fifty, there’s over a ninety-seven percent chance that two people will have the same birthday. In other words it’s almost certain.

How can this be? How can something which feels so improbable actually be rather probable?

It all comes down to mathematics. For the reader this will probably be either very good news or very bad news. For the arithmophobes amongst you I have spared you the proof of the classroom birthdays at this juncture, but for the bi(nomial)-curious I’ve added a section at the end.

Mathematics…. that intangible thing which can be described by one person as cold, hard and boring; by another as the warmest, most beautiful expression of the Universe itself.

But I digress. Let’s get back to coincidences and try to keep a human face to it.

Let me regale you with three further coincidences which I know to be true. The first happened to me. The other two happened to friends of mine, and just as certainly I know them to be true.

Coincidence number one: The young couple
It was 1983 and I was living in Liverpool. A frequent companion in these times was a Welshman named Dai. He and I would philosophise over a pint (or two). The more we drank, the more we understood. We enjoyed the City. The people. The times. The music. The culture.

But then a strange thing started to happen. No matter where we were, Dai and I would notice a couple enter our bar. They stood out. He was tall. She was small. A good-looking couple and apparently inseparable.

It was a joke at first. “Oh look, there’s that couple again” we would say, but after a few far-fetched coincidences we started to wonder. Were they following us? Were we under some sort of surveillance? Why would they be doing this?

We eventually reasoned it was just coincidence. Besides, by now they had noticed us too. In particular she would catch my eye. I was usually embarrassed. Perhaps they thought we were stalking them.

1983 disappeared and Dai and I went our separate ways. The coincidence of the young couple was soon forgotten. Dai and I pretty much lost contact over the next three years. It was harder to stay in touch in the days before the ubiquitous Internet.

Then one day, out of the blue, Dai telephoned to invite me down to his house for the weekend. I readily agreed. It was by now three years since I’d seen him. It would be good to share another pint (or two) and see how our philosophies had changed.

I arrived at Epping, two hundred miles from Liverpool, on a cold Friday night. Christmas approached and a frosty magical feeling was in the air.

“How about a quiet inn, right on the edge of the forest?” suggested Dai. “It’s my regular watering hole now.”
“Perfect,” I replied, and we made haste, anxious for some cosy cheer against the winter night.

The country inn glowed in the night. It welcomed us with uneven floors, a beery smell and a crackling fire. We settled down in a quiet corner, intent on covering the past few years over the next few hours. There wasn’t a better place on Earth to do it.

One pint slipped away. Then another and another. Two old friends with much to share.

Our reminisces were rudely interrupted, however, by the old wooden door of the inn. After some rattling of the latch the door swung wide open. In swept a couple, accompanied in their gait by a flood of icy air. Yes, it was the same couple from all those years ago in Liverpool. I looked at Dai and he looked at me. We both slipped into shock and couldn’t speak. The young girl glanced over in our general direction. She looked at me and I looked at her, and a thousand thoughts passed between us in a second.

I am ashamed to say that we didn’t speak to the young couple that night. It is one of my regrets. Perhaps it was the shock. If I ever see them again I promise you I shall be better prepared.

Coincidence number two: Extra homework
One summer, a teacher friend of mine took a hiking trip of a lifetime to explore the foothills of North-East Pakistan.

She spent many days hiking with close freinds, taking the time to explore the beautiful countryside. They met some wonderful and very hospitable people.

On one occasion, after a particularly tiresome trek through some sparse countryside, they happened across a small village. The locals all rushed out at the rarity of such visitors and made my friend and her party very welcome.

Imagine my friends surprise when she recognised one of the villagers. It was one of her own pupils from her school back in England. She had been teaching her a few weeks previous!

It turns out that the pupil was visiting relations in the village with her own family.

The best bit of this story, after the initial shock, was that the young girl thought that her teacher had come all that way to bring her some extra homework!

Coincidence number three: Hiding in the attic
Forty years ago, when a work colleague of mine (Brian) was a small boy in Devon, property developers started to build new houses on the land next to his parent’s home.

The bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers and plasterers would work by day. Brian and two young friends would play by night. The houses were their castles, their forts, their hide-outs. As the houses grew, so did the boys adventures.

One day, Brian and his friends were innocently playing upstairs in a house, when they heard footsteps on the bare wooden floors below. It was the new owners making an unexpected and out-of-hours inspection of their new property.

Brian and his friends panicked. They must not be caught. In their young imaginations they reasoned they would certainly be captured and imprisoned, maybe even shot. Brian took the lead. He quickly and heroically ushered his friends up a wooden ladder into the attic, bravely bringing up the rear himself. Once inside the confined, dark space, the three boys inched gingerly along the rafters until they could just about squeeze behind a thick brick chimney-stack.

The boys heard the footsteps from below get louder as they echoed on the bare wooden stairs. The boys shook when a stern male voice called out: “Anyone there? Show yourselves!”

Brian and his friends held their breath and tried their hardest not to move. The footsteps searched the bedrooms before eventually starting on the attic ladder itself. All three boys trembled against each other as a man hauled himself into the attic and shouted out again “IS ANYONE THERE?”

After what seems like a year to the boys, but in reality was probably about 20 seconds, the man climbed back down the ladder and engaged in conversation with a woman below. It wasn’t long before the boys were truly alone, and they were able to make their escape, never to return.

Thirty years later, Brian and his wife are in a small hotel in the Dordogne region of France, chatting over breakfast with an elderly English couple they’d met that morning.

The conversation moved around to Devon, where the couple used to live and Brian grew up. By coincidence they realised they used to live in the same village. It’s not long before the English couple told them about their haunted house. About how, when it had just been built, they had both heard the sound of children playing upstairs, but on close and extensive examination there was nobody there. It couldn’t have been real children because there was no way for them to get out.

It quickly became apparent that the elderly couple were the people who had interrupted Brian and his friends thirty years earlier.

Brian, like me with the young couple in the earlier tale, was somehow frozen by this amazing coincidence and dared not speak and declare himself.

I personally think he was worried he was going to be shot.

————–

These three coincidences all concern the meeting up of people who have been separated by some distance and for some time. As human beings these often rank amongst the rarest of coincidences which happen to us.

But in the same way that you occasionally share a birthday with a classmate or a work colleague, these rarer coincidences also have a mathematical probability and a finite chance of happening. It’s just that, in most cases, the probability is so small that they may only happen once or twice in a lifetime.

Do coincidences happen in nature? Of course they do; they’re everywhere. There’s millions of coincidences happening all the time, every second of the day.

The one that never fails to amaze me is a solar eclipse viewed from Earth.

“Why is this a coincidence?” I hear you ask.

Anyone who has experienced a full solar eclipse will tell you how magical it is. The moon slowing inching in front of the sun until, for a few wonderful seconds, the moon completely obscures the bright star behind it. Because the objects are the same size, wonderful corona effects are often seen around the rim of the black moon.

If the moon was any smaller, or the Earth a bit closer to the sun, we would never see a total eclipse. The moon would just be a smaller dark circle in front of the sun. Conversely if the moon was any larger, or the Earth a bit further away from the sun, the moon would completely obliterate the sun’s image, with none of the corona effects.

The coincidence is that, at this particular moment in our Solar System’s history, the sun’s diameter is about 400 times larger than that of the moon and the sun is also about 400 times farther away. So the sun and moon appear to be the same size as seen from Earth. Now that is a very, very slim chance.

In nature, coincidences often have billions of years over which to operate, including the wonderful coincidence of life itself. A remarkable event only needs a fraction of a second in a few billion years, but that is perhaps the subject of another blog.

So where is this all going?

What I’m trying to point out that coincidences are not all that rare. In fact they are the norm rather than the exception.

If we think back to the birthday example, the chance of me having the same birthday as someone else in the class is quite small. But two people in the class – Simkins (minor) and Spotty Trevethick – experienced quite a remarkable coincidence with no effort at all.

The chances of me winning a lot of money on the lottery are so small that I can confidently predict that I will never, ever win it in my lifetime. Even if I bought a thousand tickets a week. But at least one person will win a fortune tomorrow.

Coincidences are common when you consider all the different events that can happen to all the different things in the world, or indeed the Universe, over time. Birthdays and the Lottery are just very, very narrow examples of one thing.

If you pick one particular thing from the myriad bits of information we typically encounter during a day, the chances are quite small that there will be a coincidental occurrence involving that one thing, but if you take everything that happens in day, a week, a month or a lifetime, there is a strong probability that there will be a coincidence with something.

My conclusion is simple: We should never be surprised by a coincidence. If you have a day where you don’t have one, I strongly urge you to get out more.

Brief mathematical explanation of the class birthday coincidence.

**** Arithmophobes: Warning! Numbers ahead! ****

I’ll start gently: Most people look at the birthday situation from a personal perspective. We say “What is the chance that someone else in the class has the same birthday as me?”

The answer is actually quite low (intuitively and factually) and this is what fools us. If I share the class with one other person, the probability of them NOT having my birthday is 364/365, i.e. they can have any birthday but mine. Note: with this type of problem it’s easier to work out the probability of something NOT happening, and from this derive the probability of something happening, remembering that in probability theory:
Probability (event happens) + Probability (event doesn’t happen) = 1.

Phew, I hope you’re still with me, but feel free to bale out now. I’m also trying to keep things simple by ignoring leap years, and effects such as some months being more popular than others for births.

If we now add another person into the class, the probability of the new person NOT having my birthday is also 364/365. To get the probability of NEITHER of these two people having the same birthday as me, we have to multiply the probabilities together, i.e. (364/365) raised to the power of 2. As each new person joins the class we multiply them in again, until with a class of 24 we get the probability of nobody having my birthday as being (364/365) raised to the power of 23, or about 0.9388. Therefore the probability of someone having my birthday is about 0.0612, or a little over 6%.

This isn’t very likely, as we suspected, but with the class birthday scenario what we actually need to do is to look at it from everybody else’s point of view, as well as our own, all at the same time.

We’ve just seen that if there were only two people in the class, for example Simkins and I, the chances of us having the same birthday is small. If we now introduce Trevethick to the class, then there is the additional probability that I share a birthday with him, but there is the further probability that Simkins and Trevethick share the same birthday (this is quite independent of me).

And so it goes on as more people are added. We have to compare every new person against everyone else, not just ourselves, until we get to our class of twenty four people, where the maths shows us that it is actually more likely (than not) that two people will share the same birthday.

The equation for this – the probability that no two people share the same birthday in a class of 24 – involves a minor modification to the previous equation, as follows:

((365-1)/365) * ((365-2)/365) * ((365-3)/365) * . . . * ((365-23)/365)

This yields an answer of about 0.46, which means there is about a 54% chance of two people in a class of 24 sharing the same birthday, i.e. better than 50-50.

If anybody has been checking my maths, can I (again) suggest that you get out more…