‘An obscure public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’

23rd August 2018

At 30,000 feet on the midday flight from Marseille to Heathrow, I am thinking how to spend the afternoon. Unable to go straight home because an estate agent has arranged a viewing with a potential tenant, how would I fill this time?  I decide to go for lunch at one of my local haunts on the Thames bank, the City Barge.

Set aside for a moment the fact that the estate agent who had arranged the viewing was Chesterton’s, a family firm with connections to the writer GK Chesterton (1874 – 1936), ‘the prince of paradox’.  A few seconds after I made the  decision to go for a pub lunch ‘on the Chiswick bank of the river’, I open my kindle and make a fairly random decision to continue reading ‘The Man Who Was Thursday, a Nightmare by Gilbert K Chesterton (GKC).

I flip over the page to see in stark black and white a description of that very place which, moments previously, I had decided to visit, viz:

“”I think,” said Gregory, with placid irrelevancy, “that we will call a cab.” He gave two long whistles, and a hansom came rattling down the road. The two got into it in silence. Gregory gave through the trap the address of an obscure public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river. The cab whisked itself away again, and in it these two fantastics quitted their fantastic town.”

Coincidence is both puzzling and remarkable, a contiguity of events that appear to have no causal connecting principle between one another. A coincidence that seems to go way beyond the laws of chance can elicit a strong sense of the paranormal. I analyse here the ‘Chiswick Coincidence’ for the light it may shed on anomalistic experience.[1]  The correspondence between the free and voluntary thought of going to the pub on the Chiswick side of the river and Gregory’s choice to do the identical thing is particularly striking. This coincidence, like others that I,  or close family members, have experienced is multi-layered. I discuss here each of these 7 layers.[2]

First layer

The ‘Chiswick Coincidence’ consists of two contiguous elements:

Element 1: My decision to go to the City Barge for lunch (because my flat was being viewed by Chestertons).

Then seconds later:

Element 2:  I read the line ‘an obscure public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’ in the book by GKC.

Thus, the  first layer of coincidence is the fact that the estate agent and the author GKC are members of the same family.

Second layer

The second layer is the fact that the decision to go to the Chiswick riverside pub was followed only a few seconds later by reading a piece of text referring to a ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’. My immediate reaction being “Wow!”, “Whoa!” “WTX!” in no particular order.

SdP35CityBarge1930s_900

Historical records indicate that The City Barge has existed since 1484 when it was known as ‘The Navigator’s Arms’. Its first appearance in the licensing lists was in 1787 when it was the ‘City Navigation Barge’. As the ‘City Barge’ it was refurbished in 2014.  Historical sources point to at least 5 or 6 pubs on the Chiswick side of the river at the time of GKC’s story. The pub mentioned by GKC could have been any or none of these, perhaps only a figment of GKC’s fluid imagination. Two clues make the City Barge a good candidate however. Photographs of the City Barge from 1910, two years after the publication of TMWWTAN, show Thames barges actually tied up directly outside the City Barge. Also, when the two characters in GKC’s story, Gregory and Syme, leave the pub, they go out by the door and “close to the opening lay a dark dwarfish steam-launch”. This description fits the immediate riverside proximity of The City Barge perfectly.[3]

A kindle is a portable library. Mine is 1.33 GB of books, both fiction and non-fiction – the complete works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Joyce, Austen, Pepys, Swift, Zola and much more.  On the date in question, there were 498 works containing 146,817 pages [4]. With 350 words per page, there were around 50 million words on my kindle.  The odds of seeing the words “public-house on the Chiswick bank” on the first page I opened is around one-in-10 million (10-7).

Third layer

I checked my diary for the days immediately following the date of this event (23rd August 2018). My diary says that I would be meeting my publisher Robert Patterson to discuss a new book on Psychology and the Paranormal.. Was I perhaps on the lookout for anomalistic experience at this time? If so, I had been presented with a brilliant example.

Fourth layer

The idea of writing this book meant that I would soon be seeking new material. Although I was at the early stages when this incident happened, I can imagine no more suitable an illustration for a book on anomalous experience than this very incident. Reflecting back on this period, I can see how helpful the coincidence was in resetting my paranormal ‘Belief Barometer’.

Fifth layer

Enter – or, I should say, re-enter – Martin Gardner.  Martin had kindly contributed Forewords to editions of my previous book on ‘psi’ (Marks and Kammann, 1980; Marks, 2000).[6]  Sadly, Martin died in 2010 leaving a huge legacy of 100s of literary and scholarly works with a readership of millions. I have copies of many of Martin’s books including Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover, 1957), Mathematics, Magic and Mystery (Dover, 1956), The Annotated Alice. The Definitive Edition. Lewis Carroll (W W Norton, 2000).

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In researching TMWWTAN I made the discovery that Martin had written a Special Annotated Edition of TMWWTAN (Gardner and Chesterton, Ignatius Press, 1999). Goose bump territory! How very strange. Discovering this Special Annotated Edition seemed enigmatic and enthralling in equal measure. The three-way connection between Gilbert K Chesterton, Martin Gardner and the very book I am writing does not end here.

Sixth layer

As Chesterton noted, “hardly anybody who looked at the title ever seems to have looked at the sub-title; which was “A Nightmare,” and the answer to a good many critical questions” (Autobiography, Kindle Locations 1301-1303). Two key themes of TMWWTAN are free will and evil.  The Chiswick Coincidence triggered a change in my stance from disbelieving skeptic to neutral inquirer.  My eyes were opened to the genius of Gilbert K Chesterton, certainly a special writer and TMWWTAN is no ordinary book. It has been rated as one of the greatest works of 20th century literature. To quote from the American Chesterton Society website (https://www.chesterton.org/who-is-this-guy/):

“Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) cannot be summed up in one sentence. Nor in one paragraph…But rather than waiting to separate the goats from the sheep, let’s just come right out and say it: G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the 20th century…The reason he was the greatest writer of the 20th century was because he was also the greatest thinker of the 20th century… What was it he defended? He defended “the common man” and common sense. He defended the poor. He defended the family. He defended beauty. And he defended Christianity and the Catholic Faith.”

I was pleasantly surprised to read the above description that GFK defended the “common man”, common sense and the poor, my own values exactly.  Clearly, Gilbert Chesterton also made no secret of the fact that he believed in God, prayer and the afterlife.

Seventh layer

 Like GKC, and he also made no secret of it, Martin Gardner believed in God, prayer and the afterlife. In his autobiography, Martin stated he loved reading “anything by G. K. because of his never-ceasing emotions of wonder and gratitude to God, not only for such complicated things as himself, his wife, and the universe, but for such “tremendous trifles” (as he once called them) as rain, sunlight, flowers, trees, colours, stars, even stones that “shine along the road / That are and cannot be,” (Undiluted Hocus-Pocus.The Autobiography of Martin Gardner, 2013, p. 205).

GKC, together with the Basque philosopher and poet Miguel de Unamuno, were Martin’s two mentors. Martin’s autobiography mentions God no less than 128 times.[7] According to Martin Gardner (2013):

“Just as knowing how a magic trick is done spoils all its wonder, so let us be grateful that wherever science and reason turn they plunge finally into stygian darkness. I am not in the least annoyed because I do not understand time and space, or consciousness, or free will, or evil, or why the universe is made the way it is. I am relieved beyond measure that I do not need to comprehend more than dimly the nature of God or an afterlife. I do not want to be blinded by truths beyond the capacity of my eyes and brain and heart. I am as contented as a Carnap with the absence of rational methods for penetrating ultimate mysteries” (p. 341).

For a lot of different reasons, and in completely unexpected ways, the Chiswick Coincidence opened my eyes.  At a seventh layer, I find that the coincidence revealed another synchronicity: the shared values and beliefs of Martin Gardner, in many ways one of most precious mentors, and a man I could never have met, GKC, the author of the metaphysical thriller TMWWTAN.

Combined Probability of Seven Layers

I give estimates here of the probabilities for each layer followed by a combined probability estimate.

Layer 1: The probability that the estate agent and GKC himself are from a single family is estimated to be 10-3. This estimate takes into account the number of West London estate agencies (500+) and the chance that the agent that I had selected would have a strong familial connection with GKC, the central character in this episode.

Layer 2: The probability that my plan to visit the Chiswick riverside pub would be followed a few seconds later by seeing the words ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank ’on the first page of my kindle is estimated to be 10-7. This estimate takes into account the huge quantity of kindle text (in excess of 50 million words) that I could have selected to read on this occasion.

Layer 3:The probability that on the same visit to London I would be meeting my publisher Robert Patterson to discuss a new book is estimated to be 10-1 . This accords with the frequency of such meetings which is approximately once a year.

Layer 4:Taking into account the fact that no contract for the paranormal book existed at the time, the probability that the Chiswick Coincidence would be useful material for this book is estimated to be 10-1   

Layer 5:Taking into account of the fact that, before this incident, I knew almost nothing about GKC,  the probability that somebody I knew, somebody I regarded as a mentor, somebody who had written forewords to two of my  books, Martin Gardner, would also be somebody who had written a Special Annotated Edition of TMWWTAN is estimated to be 10-4

Layer 6: The probability that lifelong personal values, to defend the “common man”, common sense and the poor, I later discovered to be GFK’s values is estimated to be 10-1 [8].

Layer 7: The synchronicity in values and beliefs between Martin Gardner and Gilbert K Chesterton, author of TMWWTAN, is estimated to be a certainty. Martin loved GKC’s writing and shared his values and beliefs.

In addition, it is necessary to consider the boundary conditions. Sitting on an aeroplane on a short-haul flight, offers a variety of activities, viz: doing nothing, doing a puzzle, watching a film, listening to music, snoozing,  chatting,  looking out of the window, drinking a tea or coffee, reading a non-kindle item (newspaper, magazine or book), or reading a kindle. I estimate the probability that I would have chosen to read my kindle on this occasion as one-in-ten ( 10-1 ).

The combined probability P of the seven synchronicities and the boundary condition is:

P  = 10-3 X  10-7 X  10-1 X  10-1   X  10-4   X 10-1  X 1 X  10-1   = 10-18

= one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000  

i.e. one in one quintillion (a million, million, million) [9]

 These odds are so astronomical in scale, one must consider the possibility of a paranormal explanation. Not to do so would seem irrational and contrary to science.

Explaining the Coincidence

How might this remarkable 7-layered coincidence, together with its impact and meaning, all be explained?  Let’s consider the explanations that are available from each side of the theoretical divide.

Hypothesis 1 – N Theory Explanation: Coincidences are bound to occur every once in a while purely by chance.

From the perspective of N Theory, I give the first type of explanation. The nugget of the Chiswick Coincidence lies within Layer 2:

Event A: choosing by free will to go to the City Barge for lunch.

Event B: choosing by free will to read, only moments later, a story, I would soon discover, that contains an incident about a  ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’.

When considered independently, neither event is in any way extraordinary. Only their near simultaneity appears extraordinary. If I had read the passage a few months, weeks or even days previously or sometime later, I would have noted that I knew just such a place but would not have blinked an eyelid.  Any Londoner is familiar with the experience of coming across familiar places in novels or movies.

It is necessary to consider the possibility of a hidden cause, something that might create the illusion of synchronicity when it isn’t really there. One possibility is that GKC may have been frequently mentioning things in and around Chiswick. In this case the coincidence might not be so odd after all.  It is possible to test this hypothesis relatively easily. It is said that Chesterton was one of the most prolific writers of all time. He wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. I downloaded the Delphi Collected Works of GK Chesterton onto my kindle. Using the kindle search function I found that there only 7 occurrences of the word “Chiswick” in GKC’s Collected Works. This fact makes the Chiswick Coincidence seem even odder than before.

Another possibility that must be considered is that I had already seen the crucial passage on a previous occasion. This possibility can be safely eliminated for two different reasons. Firstly, if I had already seen this passage, I would already noticed the connection between one of my favourite riverside haunts and GFC’s mention of it. In this case, seeing it for a second time would not have seemed the least bit remarkable. Secondly, a kindle automatically remembers the point reached at a previous reading and obligingly opens the selected book at that page.

The ultimate skeptical explanation is possibly the most accurate. It says that coincidences are just – coincidences!  A coincidence is a coincidence is a coincidence; a random, chance kind of thing. Something similar to the Chiswick Coincidence is occurring with someone somewhere almost every second of the day. When this extremely striking kind of coincidence occurs, it is bound to attract the experiencer’s attention. It is purely the wheels of chance turning and nothing else – once-in-a-blue-moon ‘Lady Luck’ and ‘Father Time’ jump into bed together and another coincidence sucker is born.

Hypothesis 2 – P Theory Explanation: Reverse causality by unconscious reading of the text triggers the decision to visit the pub on the Chiswick side of the river.

What of a paranormal interpretation? It is essential to air all possible explanations and the P Theory warrants a fair hearing.  The two key elements of the Chiswick Coincidence remain :

Event A: deciding by free will to go to the City Barge for lunch.

Event B: deciding by free will to read, only moments later, a story, which contains an incident about a ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’.

What about the possibility of reversed causality such that Event B occurs immediately before Event A.  This P Theory explanation goes like this: I read the part of the story about the Chiswick pub by an unconscious process of clairvoyance, clairvoyantly seeing the text about a ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’ inside my kindle.  Reading this text at an unconscious level triggers my decision to go to the City Barge for lunch. Afterwards, at a conscious level, when I switch on the kindle and actually read the text, I feel a sense of wonderment and surprise. This is no coincidence at all – reading about the Chiswick pub naturally and logically led to my plan to visit it.

If one is open to psi processes as scientific possibilities, then there should be no problem in accepting the P Theory explanation. In fact the P Theory nails it. If the skeptic demurs that there is no evidence for clairvoyance, unconscious perception or reverse causality and it just cannot be so, the P Theorist might well retort: “Normally, yes, but on this occasion all three happened.” There is no rational way of resolving the matter; which interpretation one accepts rests entirely upon subjective judgement.

Summary and Conclusion

On a homeward journey, involving multiple free choices, a striking coincidence happened. The laws of chance suggest the odds against the Chiswick Coincidence are around one-quintillion-to-one.  Both an ‘N Theory’ interpretation and a ‘P Theory’ interpretation remain logical possibilities. There can be no definitive method of proving which explanation is the correct one. This incertitude requires a neutral stance and a degree of humility about one’s reaction to striking anomalous experience.[11]

My search for a scientific explanation was matched by an equally compelling realisation that there might not be one. Which interpretation is true cannot be decided by reason. Only personal preference –based on one’s a pre-existing bias – allows one to reach a definite conclusion.


Footnotes


[1] I freely acknowledge some readers may well view my ‘Chiswick Coincidence’ with skepticism.  If for no other good reason, ‘One person’s coincidence can be another person’s yawn’; https://wordpress.com/post/coincidences.blog/251

[2] The reader is encouraged to explore personal coincidences using this method of ‘layer analysis’.  Looking for layers of meaning enables one to grasp the full significance of a synchonicity.

[3] The City Barge is a 10-minute drive from Bedford Park, the “queer artificial village” of  ‘Saffron Park’, that features in GKC’s novel.

[4] With the settings on the kindle as they were at that time, there are 4-5 kindle pages to every printed page.

[5] To specify these distributions, a large sample of data points with exact odds values would be required.

[6] Martin Gardner (Foreword to the Second Edition, Marks, 2000) wrote: “It will rank as one of the strongest and best exposés ever directed at the more outlandish claims of parapsychology”(p. 13).

[7] By comparison, Chesterton’s autobiography mentions ‘God’ 62 times.

[8] I share GKC’s values as listed but not his religious beliefs.

[9] A quintillion is cardinal number represented by 1 followed by 18 zeros (US) and by 1 followed by 30 zeros (UK). Here I use the US definition.

[10] I adopt this response from Gardner (2013) The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (p. 235).

[11] Michael Thalbourne (2006) dismisses skeptical explanations based on chance “as a bottomless pit, able to swallow up each and every coincidence that does not already have a normal explanation.” The fact is, in regard to this coincidence, there is no fool-proof method to say whether the P Theory of the N Theory interpretation is correct. It comes down to making one’s own subjective evaluation.