20140401 Don’t be an April Fool – recognise that coincidences are real.

It is often said that there are no coincidences. But unless one believes in some kind of grand-master who manages the minutiae of the lives of all creatures and things on Earth, and beyond, sometimes it is clear coincidences do exist.

Here’s an example.


Here’s an example: in the 1970s, when the inexplicable craze of “caravanning” was at its height, thousands of British families decanted themselves from their houses and into a metal box towed behind their car. My own family was one and we used to travel about 30 miles to a field near the North Yorkshire town of Thirsk, a lovely place in the North Yorkshire Dales. Look it up: the town and the surrounding area are beautiful. And, given the muck chucked out by heavy industry around Teesside (industrial pollution as in China and India is nothing new) heading for the Dales was a way to breathe clean air for a couple of days.

Thirsk was where the author known as James Herriot lived and worked as a vet (that means “veterinary surgeon” in English English). It wasn’t his real name but as his fame as a writer of humorous tales of his life as a pre-war vet spread, and spawned a highly popular TV series, his anonymity was lost. And it seemed like the world and his dog knew exactly how to find the surgery so as to have a photograph taken in front of it. I don’t remember my family doing that but I suppose it’s possible. For sure my own dog walked past it. Herriot’s books were almost compulsory reading in many families, gentle humour set in a more civilised time. We had a full set and I’m pretty certain that, if I dig around in my parents’ place, I’ll find them.

The TV series was called “All Creatures Great and Small,” and, in 1996, a year after his death, his publishers put out a compendium of several smaller volumes under that title.

Here’s where it starts to get weird:

if anyone thinks they can work out a mathematical probability for the way this story develops, let me know. Until then, I think it’s proof of coincidence, serendipity or whatever one calls a recognition that things just happen without a grand plan.

It is, for example, incomprehensible that, when he was ringing up a sale for a copy of “All Creatures Great and Small” for GBP6.99 just after 2pm on the 17th December 1996 at WH Smith in Kingston upon Thames near London, Stephen K (I have his full name but it’s not fair to use it here) knew that the book would begin a journey through time and space and, for now, it is taking a breather on my coffee table in Kuala Lumpur more than 17 years later.

Stephen K was not a Saturday jobber: it was a Tuesday, but he may have been a student working the last week before Christmas to handle the rush that bookshops used to have. The till timed the transaction at 2.06pm which suggests that the purchaser might have been in a hurry, already late to return to work after a lunch break. There is only one item on the list, showing that it was an important, if possibly rushed, purchase.

It is highly unlikely that Stephen K would know that the book would be inscribed “To Nan, Merry Christmas, Love Jo. xx.”

It is surely impossible that he could foresee that the book would later form part of a job lot that would be sold and, eventually, end up in a central Kuala Lumpur bookshop specialising in remainders and second hand books.

There is no way that we could imagine that he could know that someone who had some first hand knowledge of the area where the books were written and recollection of the glory days of the Herriot industry and had migrated to Malaysia more than a decade earlier would walk into the shop nor that that that person would pick it up and add it to the pile of books in his hand, paying the equivalent of GBP3 for it.

For sure, Stephen K would not imagine that the purchaser who may or may not have been Jo would have left the sales slip dropped into the book so that Nan knew what the gift had cost, especially as there had been a ham-fisted attempt to obscure the price on the back cover so the book would not be accepted for return if Nan didn’t like it.

Even then, Stephen K would not expect that the receipt with his name on it would still be between the pages, protected from the light that would in normal circumstances fade the ink-jet printed text so as to be illegible within days, giving a tiny snap-shot of his life to a complete stranger half a world and a decade and a half away.

I don’t care what statisticians and probability theorists say, there was no way Stephen or the original purchaser, the Jo in the dedication (we cannot be sure that she was the original purchaser but it seems one of the less improbable assumptions we might make) or Nan to who it was presented as a gift would know that when the book was picked up at some remote time and place, it would be as my companion and I loaded ourselves with our usual wide range of books sometimes having little or no idea what we are picking up because part of the excitement is in discovering the unknown in a random selection.

They would not know that I would give a short version of the caravan story to her as I added it to the pile I was carrying.

And all of this comes before the thing that raises the improbability levels into uncharted territory, to the point where it’s almost possible to believe in The Infinite Improbability Drive made famous by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books and which powers a spaceship called, appropriately and some would say impossibly for this story, “The Heart of Gold.”

What is so improbable? My companion’s name is Jo.

This is why it’s so difficult to understand how we form suspicion. The world is full of facts and in so many cases they are utterly random. How we join them up is a constant challenge.

But this story also demonstrates why we should be cautious about “reasonable cause for suspicion.” The story has a clear timeline and a logical progression but the probabilities involved are so remote that the facts cannot sustain knowledge, belief or suspicion of a connection between its beginning and its end.

This story is not in my book “Understanding Suspicion…” because it happened during the afternoon of the day that the book was published even further away, in the USA.

It may not be a coincidence that this book is published twenty years to the day that I walked into my office in Old Bailey (not the court, the building next door that was previously the UK headquarters of Reader’s Digest) and opened the package that changed my life. “The Money Laundering Regulations…” it said.

I know what you are thinking: yes today is 1 April 2014; no, this is not a joke. Every word of the above is true.

©2014 Nigel Morris-Cotterill
All rights reserved.


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