Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) in the Sherlock Holmes novel The Adventure of the Cardboard Box provided Holmes with this observation,
|‘What is the meaning of it, Watson? […] What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.’|
In more recent times publisher and TV and movie directors appear to have chosen to overlook Holmes’s recreational use of cocaine, morphine and opium – which may have had much to do with the tone of this quote.
The astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) also saw a guiding hand, concluding that:
|‘Random events and chance occurrences are insufficient to account for the complexity of living organisms.’|
The philosophers and scientists do not believe in blind chance, physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) commented that:
|‘God does not play dice.’|
But to a large extent where we begin our life’s journey does feel more like an accident. It is sobering to think that even minor changes of 1% in space or time would have significantly altered if and who I became.
My mother was from Bristol and my father from Manchester. The chance of any two specified individuals ever meeting is quite unlikely, but place them 175 miles apart at birth and factor in a time of low social mobility and the odds get longer.
Before they met they both had to survive World War II, a war that killed 450,000 of the UK’s 47million population (or around 1%). My father’s aircraft carrier was headed towards Singapore as the Japanese took it, my mother’s home in the centre of Bristol was bombed and gutted while the family sheltered beneath it. Thus, their eventual meeting must be given a very high level of improbability.
Add to this the fact that my grandmother was from Willenhall in the Black Country and my grandfather from Bishops Auckland in Durham – and the odds lengthen even further.
If I had been born fifty miles west of Bristol then I might have been Welsh. Two hundred miles west I could have been Irish, 200 miles south and I might have been French, a little over 200 miles east and I would have been Dutch. Two hundred miles is an insignificant shift of under 1% across the earth’s circumference!
If I had been born fifty years earlier, I would have been sixteen when World War I broke out and been prime cannon fodder. Born a hundred years earlier I would have emerged into one of my home town’s worst cholera outbreaks. Two hundred years earlier and I would have been born into what was then Britain’s busiest slave-trading port and given my social class may well have become a Redemptioner, taking indentured servitude to get free passage to the American colonies and seek my fortune. A hundred years is around four generations and thus a little over 1% of human recorded history.
Three different shifts of just 1% in survival place and time, that would have erased or changed me fundamentally!
Our year of birth, postcode and family circumstances are completely outside our control and yet they decide the access we have to good nutrition, the parental education we receive, how our limbic system evolves our emotions and drives, our cultural environment, the values and religious framework within which we are raised. We can influence very little of this – we must accept that it is what it is and give our best shot at making the most of the meagre hand that we happen to be dealt.
This lottery begins in the womb. In 1948 around thirty-nine in every 1000 new-born babies were stillborn or died within a week (today it’s thankfully just eight). The lottery continued postnatally, then a further thirty-six in every 1000 births did not survive their first year.
Ten years after my birth, mothers were prescribed thalidomide during pregnancy to ease anxiety and insomnia. Worldwide 10,000 babies were adversely affected, half survived with severe defects. One such girl lived ten doors from my home in Bristol and was born with her hands emerging directly from her shoulders.
A 1990s scandal at my local teaching hospital, the Bristol Royal Infirmary, emerged when the paediatric cardiac surgery team recorded unusually high death rates; a subsequent report concluded that treatment had not been ‘fit for purpose’.
One last matter of chance worth mentioning is that I was born on 7 May 1948 at Bristol Maternity Hospital, then located at the top of St Michael’s Hill in the centre of Bristol. My mother’s home had been gutted nearby but these grim old buildings managed to survive the WWII hammering the city had sustained. My birth predated the National Health Service by sixty days (It started on 5 Jul 1948).
Just 208 days after my swimming into the light, in the very same hospital, my future wife Jane Alison Allen arrived on 11 Dec 1948. Our families lived four miles apart across this busy (then 450,00 population) city, yet we each took our first breath in the same place.
The above thoughts make me appreciate how I have been lucky from an early age; life is hard if you are not lucky! With luck running for you, life feels pretty good.