Hannah Critchlow’s book, which prompted the idea of this column

After All: Of the fateful (and sometimes nearly fatal) fatalism of fate

Image credit: Christine Bohling

In his first in 2022 After All column, Vitali considers the ‘science of fate’ and celebrates the unpredictability of life.

This column’s topic was prompted by Dr Hannah Critchlow’s book ‘The Science of Fate. Why your future is more predictable than you think’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019), which I spotted – among other random volumes – inside my warm and cosy office at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, where I now work as a Writing Fellow. Left behind by the room’s previous occupiers, they varied in subjects and were scattered higgledy-piggledy on the shelves.

Dr Critchlow, a leading British neuroscientist (and my fellow Magdalene Fellow), whom I subsequently met at one of the Fellows’ lunches, used to be based in that office until taking up a protracted overseas assignment, after which she was assigned a new room in the college, but some of her books remained in her old office that became mine. So, coming across ‘The Science of Fate’, which I read with her kind permission and very much enjoyed, particularly her thoughts on ‘biological determinism’ and scientific prediction, was a small instance of ‘fate’ (i.e. ‘a chain of events outside the person’s control’) in itself.

I have a long-standing fascination with the mysteries of human destiny and the theory of probability, albeit my interest, unlike Dr Crichlow’s, has always been literary and emotional rather than scientific, my favourite work on the subject being ‘The Fatalist’ – a mesmerising novella from Mikhail Lermontov’s masterpiece ‘The Hero of Our Time’.

A protagonist of my own science-fiction comedy novel ‘Out of the Blu’, Professor Daniel Spiegeltent liked to sum up the theory of probability in the following, strictly non-academic, terms: “Don’t panic when flying abroad, or just crossing a busy road. Just remember the statistics which make it clear that the probability of a fatal accident or even a minor injury is minuscule – one out of many millions – and virtually non-existent. Mind you, all statistics become meaningless, if YOU yourself happen to belong to that luckless minuscule minority who found themselves in the proverbial wrong place at the no-less proverbial wrong time.”

As Voland, the devil reincarnate from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel ‘The Master and Margarita’, used to say: “Bricks never fall on people’s heads by accident!” – a thought echoed by another Russian writer and poet, Arseniy Tarkovsky, who compared fate to being chased by a madman with a razor blade in his hand.

Let’s face it, my dear readers: the year 2021, RIP, was unique in its sheer unpredictability, regarded by many as a synonym of ‘fate’. Vaccines and lockdowns introduced.  Meetings, parties, trips (and – increasingly – people themselves) cancelled (and ‘cancelled’). Governments, issuing mutually contradictory statements almost daily, to the point when it became next to impossible to plan anything at all, and Her Majesty the Fate ruled supreme!

In my writing tutorials at Magdalene College, I advise my students to always opt for shorter and simpler words in their essays, e.g. to use ‘confused’ instead of ‘discombobulated’, no matter how much more ‘scholarly’ and sophisticated the latter might sound to them.  Yet, to properly describe the final weeks of 2021, when hopes for a more organised future were suddenly thwarted by the emergence of Omicron, I would have to stick to ‘discombobulated’ – more characteristic of the pompous mumbles of Boris-speak and of my own state of mind too.

To add significantly to that seasonal ‘discombobulation’ of mine, the end of the year was marked by two unexpected missives received at the time when all you are likely to find in your mailbox are hastily written Christmas greetings.

Both letters were the antithesis of Christmas cards, albeit the latter tried to pose as one. The first, with the heading ‘Intention to Prosecute’, was from Bedfordshire Police, whose vigilant speed camera caught me doing 58mph in a 50mph zone (I was, of course, sure I was still in the 60mph zone; besides, it was dark!). It offered three ways out of the situation: prosecution; fine and three penalty points for the licence; and a speed awareness course, with a fee (read: fine), but no points – food for thought for a proverbial stranded ‘Knight at the Crossroads’ faced with the three road signs: ‘Go right – lose your horse; go left – lose your life; go straight – lose both’.

Using the old English saying, ‘horses for courses’ as a guide, I was about to choose the right turn, when another letter was dropped through my uncomplaining door by the ‘merciless postman of fate’.

Originating from an organisation with the cheerful name ‘Pure Cremation’, it offered “a fuss-free alternative to the traditional funeral” that could save me “up to £2,290” and spare me “the fuss of a traditional funeral” – all in exchange for my own “Pre-paid Cremation Plan” for a mere £1,595! The undeniable perks of such a plan would be: “A solid pine eco-coffin; all cremation fees” and some other, all of which should culminate in “a simple but dignified cremation, personally returning your ashes by hand” (!).

Reading the last point, I felt myself involuntarily turning into a handful of happy warm ashes well ahead of my prepaid cremation plan.

To make the offer even more convincing, the flier inside the envelope featured – right under the company’s logo: “Pure Cremation. The Freedom to Choose” – a photo of a smiling and seemingly healthy middle-aged man holding a basket of flowers, or possibly of his own (or my?) freshly baked ashes.

That photo puzzled me a little. Was the man in it a Pure Cremation happy customer prior to (or possibly after?) his own cremation, or a Pure Cremation staffer, made happy by having just cremated someone in his company’s bespoke friendly fashion, possibly even myself?

And a treacherous thought that going for the Pure Cremation option without further delays could help me avoid the dreaded speed awareness course...

Well, as the American boxer Mike Tyson used to say: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Her Majesty the Fate had ruled differently. I did attend the speed awareness course, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My driving had got much better and I was able to avoid road accidents, yet unable to prevent fainting suddenly in my kitchen, falling and injuring my head last Monday evening!

I spent the night at the ‘friendly’ (if not quite to the Pure Cremation level) A&E department of our local hospital, where I had ample time to ponder over the vicissitudes of fate, reflected in – at times precarious, and yet still beautiful – the unpredictability of our daily lives.

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