Over recent months I’ve had several circular conversations with my Mum about coincidence. We always end up mutually baffled.
For example, she recently told me she had tried to call my godmother, but she was engaged. Later she discovered my godmother was trying to call her.
‘You’re going to say that’s a coincidence aren’t you?’ she said.
And of course I say it is. And then Mum says but it’s too unlikely to be a coincidence. And then I say that if it wasn’t unlikely it wouldn’t be a coincidence. And so on.
I mean, if it isn’t a coincidence, what is it?
I’m not an accomplished mathematician but while researching my second novel about an an astrophysicist and the quest for immortality I’ve been boning up. Recently I’ve been reading about chance and coincidence in The Norm Chronicles by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter and the Maths of Life and Death by Kit Yates. Sorry Mum.
To set the record straight: I like coincidences. In fact, there were several joyous coincidences during the writing of Odd Bird.
My working title for Odd Bird was The Birdman of Acton – yes Burt Lancaster, I was thinking of you. The opening chapter takes place in pub in Acton. I called the pub The Swan because ─ spoiler alert ─ Simon, my protagonist, loves birds. Next thing I knew I had invented the ‘Swan Song’ in order to show Simon and his friend Phil sparring.
I’d already written that opening chapter when I visited Acton for the first time. I walked around its streets and parks to decide where Simon would live and eat and shop. Finally that afternoon I walked the route that I knew Simon would run in Chapter 3. Ahead on Acton Road I could see a pub. As I neared, I could see a sign. The Swan.
What are the chances?
Swan is not a rare pub name. There are two-hundred and eighty-nine in the UK which means it pips White Horse to the number 7 most popular pub name slot. However, there are approximately forty-nine thousand ‘settlements’ in the UK. This means that for every Acton there are one-hundred and sixty-nine settlements that don’t have a Swan.
I had a beer in the Swan obviously and I garbled the premise of my proto novel to the lady behind the bar. Soon I will go return, clutching Odd Bird.
This is a good one.
I decided that Kim, Simon’s love interest, should live in an area which was more up market than Acton and yet it needed to be nearby and close to Empirical. I plumped for South Kensington.
I suspect I wasted a lot of time on little details that nobody would notice while writing Odd Bird. For example, I spent time on Rightmove finding accommodation for characters and I found their faces and clothes on the internet too. But I found Kim’s address in my little, battered London AZ.
I was writing a scene about Simon and Kim having a spat on the way to her flat from South Ken Tube. I needed her flat to be far enough away from the station to let the argument build. I got out my AZ, opened it to page 73, drew a red line around the boundary and then dropped the pen down onto a street. ‘That’s where she lives,’ I thought.
The pen landed on Selwood Terrace. Simon’s surname is Selwood.
What are the chances?
There are sixty thousand streets in London and just three that include Selwood. That’s quite a coincidence.
The bullfinch has an important role to play in Odd Bird. It’s the second most important bird species in the book. I can’t explain why here, but it is.
My little house backs on to a small wood and I put out a lot of bird food and so I’ve seen a lot of birds in my garden since I began Odd Bird. I rarely see bullfinches though.
I was putting the final touches to my Odd Bird submission when I saw my first. She was sitting on the grass beneath the apple tree. I picked up the binoculars I acquired while writing Odd Bird and stood by my window and watched her.
What are the chances? I wondered.
It’s a tricky question, that one.
The BTO say that there is only a 10% chance that a garden will receive at least one visit a week by a bullfinch. But I hadn’t seen a bullfinch in in four years.
No disrespect to the BTO, but there has to be a better estimate. We know there are approximately three hundred and thirty thousand bullfinches in the UK and there are approximately 20 million household gardens.
Let’s say (just hear me out, please) that all the bullfinches conspired to each fly off to a unique garden on the afternoon in question (stay with me). In that case there would be a one in sixty chance that my garden would be a winner in bullfinch bingo. But it must be a lot lower than that, given my ridiculous scenario.
But how much lower? Can we just agree that it’s highly unlikely? Let’s agree that it was quite a coincidence. Except, that by the time she flew off, I was feeling more confident about my submission.
I must ask Mum what she thinks.