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I've never been a big movie fan. Sara was
somewhat more so than I, but neither of us
owned any reference books in which I could
check out the film careers of my mysterious
childhood friends. However, I had noticed
a specialist movie shop a few blocks from
where we lived, and I walked over to it the
next morning The only "Harts" I
could find any trace of in all the books
on the shelves were Dolores Hart, Harvey
Hart, Moss Hart, and William S. Hart. There
had been a Mary Hart in B-pictures in the
thirties, who had later changed her name
to Lynne Roberts. Of course there was Lorenz
Hart, the song lyricist, who died in 1943.
He had been popularly known as "Larry",
just as Lauren Paige had been nicknamed "Larry",
so that after her marriage she would presumably
have been known as "Larry" Hart.
But that was a pretty tenuous connection.
In fact not a connection at all, just a vague
coincidence. As to the careers of either
Jeremy Hart or Lauren Paige, there was nothing.
I asked the greying pony-tailed man in charge
if there were other sources I might consult.
He produced a couple of tomes that specialized
in obscure cult-movies, but we drew a blank
there too. He himself had never heard of
Jeremy Hart or Lauren Paige, or any variations
thereof. Refusing to be defeated, he withdrew
to the computer behind his desk and began
a search of the web. Fifteen minutes later
he handed me a print-out listing five movies
starring Jeremy Hart, four of which co-starred
The information on the sheet of paper that
he'd given me was minimal to say the least.
Titles, stars, director, and in one case
the writer. No plot descriptions, no critical
comments or biographical information. "Spring
In Piccadilly" was dated 1953 and starred
both of them, as did "Whistling Through" in
1958. They appeared in support of a pop star
trying to break into acting in "Girl
Scout Patrol" in 1963, then in "There's
A Spy In My Soup" in 1967. Jeremy alone
played a small role "The Silver Spoon" in
Little though I knew or cared about the
cinema, I formed the impression that this
amounted to a less-than-glittering career.
The "rising heart-throb" written
about in "Variety" had risen, it
seemed, not very far. Whether he and Ms Paige
were still alive I had no idea, though I
imagined that if they were it would not be
impossible to track them down. But just to
find out when and where I had been photographed
with them? It hardly seemed worth it.
It was a bright clear morning when I left
the movie shop, not long after eleven. I
was crossing Amsterdam at 87th, going east
when, as I reached the far side, my attention
fell, quite by chance, on something lying
in the gutter. It was a playing card: the
ace of hearts.
It wasn't the word-play, the pun of "Harts" and "hearts" that
drew my attention to it. What made me stop
and pick the card up was a memory that it
triggered which had lain dormant for many
years. It was a memory of a literary agent
I'd once known who'd since moved out to Los
Angeles. Her name was Vanessa White. She
had never been my agent but she represented
a couple of other writers I knew well. Maybe
it was the association of Los Angeles and
Hollywood and the movie bookshop I'd just
stepped out of that made the connection,
I don't know. All I know is I saw that playing
card and thought of Vanessa White.
She was an attractive and sophisticated
young woman who delighted in telling the
filthiest jokes I'd ever heard. I never figured
out whether she was trying to shock people,
or whether gross-out was the only thing she
found genuinely funny. It was an odd contrast
with her svelte appearance and normally rather
delicate manner. She was a thoughtful, reflective
woman. I remember her telling me once that
she used to collect odd little things that
struck her as signs pointing in a certain
direction. She showed me a pocket at the
back of her "organizer" where she
kept small items cut out of newspapers and
magazines, a stranger's scribble on some
hotel phone pad, a pressed flower, and a
playing card she'd found under a restaurant
table. These things, she said, tended to
lead her on to other things, to guide her
life along a certain course that was for
some reason the right way for her to go.
I never pretended to understand what she
was talking about, nor did she explain it
very clearly. But there had been something
fascinating and oddly compelling about the
way she talked about the phenomenon and it
obviously held some deep personal significance
for her. And there I was, finding a playing
card in the street and thinking about her
for the first time in years. Vanessa, of
course, would have picked the card up and
kept it, convinced that it would in some
way lead her on to something else.
Impulsively, and I still don't know why
I did this, I bent down, picked the card
up and slipped it into my wallet. As I did
so I felt a self-conscious, slightly sceptical
smile spread across my face as I imagined
the odds against running into Vanessa herself
in a couple of blocks, or maybe just into
one of those friends of mine that she used
to represent. That would have been a coincidence
worth, as the saying goes, writing home about.
Or at least, perhaps, writing about.
But nothing happened. No familiar faces,
nobody I even vaguely knew.
I walked on for several blocks.
Then something happened.
I think the image had reached my brain and
my body had responded before I was fully
conscious of what was in front of me. All
I remember is finding that I'd stopped and
was gazing into the window of one of those
specialist cake shops that will make any
kind of cake in any design of your choice.
There, right in the middle of the window,
was an ornate and sugary creation in the
shape of a playing card. It was the ace of
As I've mentioned, it was early fall, a
long way from Valentine's Day. If it had
been February 14th, it would hardly have
qualified as a coincidence. New York would
have been wall-to-wall hearts. But what was
a cake like that doing in the middle of a
shop window in the fall? And how did I happen
to chance on it just a few minutes after
picking up that playing card?
My first instinct was to find a rational
explanation. Suppose, for example, that the
whoever had ordered the cake had used a playing
card to show people in the shop exactly what
they wanted. It was conceivable, although
unlikely: after all, who in the world doesn't
know what the ace of hearts looks like anyway?
But supposing that was what had happened.
Then whoever it was had walked a couple of
blocks north and either dropped the card
or thrown it away. It was a reasonable explanation.
But then most people would think that coincidence
was a reasonable explanation. The point where
things got interesting, it occurred to me,
would be where coincidence was not a reasonable
explanation but something remarkable.
I walked on. Although the subject had been
buzzing around at the back of my mind for
the last few days, it was only then, I think,
that I made the conscious decision to make
coincidence the subject of my next book.
I wasn't starting on the subject from absolute
zero. I'd been briefly interested in the
strangeness of coincidence years earlier.
The first time I really wondered about it
was in school, when I came across a list
of remarkable similarities between the assassinations
of presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. It went
like this: Lincoln was elected to Congress
in 1847, Kennedy in 1947. The names Lincoln
and Kennedy both contain seven letters. The
wife of each president lost a son while she
was first lady. Both presidents were shot
in the head from behind on a Friday while
sitting beside their wives; both were succeeded
by a southerner named Johnson, and the two
Johnsons were born a hundred years apart.
Both their killers were themselves killed
before they could be brought to justice.
The names John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey
Oswald both contain fifteen letters. Booth
was born in 1839, Oswald in 1939. Lincoln
had a secretary called Kennedy; Kennedy a
secretary called Lincoln. Lincoln was killed
in the Ford Theatre; Kennedy was killed in
a Ford Lincoln.
Since then I've seen many variations of
the same list, often longer and embellished
with obsessive and borderline-insane detail.
People have made careers out of investigating
this single aspect of the Kennedy myth.
But then you'd expect a thing like that
to attract the cranks.
I don't suppose anybody can remember the
first coincidence that ever happened to them.
I know I can't. By the time you become aware
of coincidence it's already a fact of life,
something you've always taken for granted
because it's just been there, like the weather.
A friend telephones as you're about to call
them. You bump into some stranger who knows
your cousin on the far side of the world.
You have an amazing run of luck - which,
after all, is just a chain of coincidences
- at some game of chance.
There is no explanation for such things,
and most people would probably say no need
for one. A coincidence can be trivial, in
fact usually is; or it can change your life
- like the woman who picked up a phone and
got a crossed line, and found herself listening
to her husband calling his mistress from
One man I know was given a coded flight
reservation that was the same number as the
licence plate of his car, which he'd totaled
the previous week. (He took the flight: nothing
When Sara and I first met she had two cats
named Daisy and Alice, which also happened
to be the names of my two nieces. We laughed
about the coincidence, but didn't regard
it as an omen or anything like that.
But what is coincidence? Is it anything
more than fluke? Blind chance, indifferent
and unconscious of the human fates that may
hinge on it?
Or is there more to it, something behind
A while after coming across the Kennedy-Lincoln
connection, I discovered there was a fancy
word for unlikely coincidence. The word was "synchronicity",
and it was coined by the psychologist C.
G. Jung who, with the physicist Wolfgang
Pauli, published a treatise called: "Synchronicity:
An Acausal Connecting principle". That
was in 1952.
Surprisingly, there is still no mention
in the Encyclopaedia Britannica that these
two remarkable men, despite being treated
at length individually, ever knew each other.
You will search the index in vain for any
mention of synchronicity. In fact you will
search pretty much the whole of scientific
literature without success. It is an unsung
collaboration between one man who created
some of the most fundamental terms in which
we think (including "introvert" and "extrovert",
as well as the "collective unconscious"),
and another who made a vital contribution
to quantum physics which won him the Nobel
Not exactly people in whose company you
need feel embarrassed to be seen, I would
have thought. Which makes the omission all
the more curious.
Twenty years ago the Concise Oxford Dictionary
didn't list the word either. Now it does,
defining it as: "The simultaneous occurrence
of events which appear significantly related
but have no discernible connection".
One reason for the word's cautious emergence
from the intellectual closet to which it
had been consigned was Arthur Koestler's
book, "The Roots of Coincidence",
published in 1972. In it he linked the idea
to developments in modern physics such as
quantum indeterminacy and probability theory,
and traced it back to work done on "seriality" around
the turn of the century. Seriality means
things happening in clusters. The Chinese
wrote about that centuries ago, and most
people have experienced this in one form
or another. Why, for example, do so many
people believe that things happen in three's?
(And even if they do, does it mean anything?)
The following day I made a date to have
lunch with my agent downtown. It was another
pleasant fall day, so I decided to walk -
at least part of the way. Somewhere on Madison
and a little way below 57th I began to feel
like a cup of coffee. Glancing at my watch,
I saw that I had plenty of time, so I stopped
at a small cafe that I didn't remember ever
having been in before, or for that matter
ever having noticed.
I slid into the first empty booth I came
across. Someone had left a newspaper in the
corner and I moved it out of my way. As I
did so, I saw that it was folded open at
a partially completed crossword. I don't
normally have much interest in crosswords,
but for some reason this one caught my attention,
and I thought I'd try finishing it off as
I drank my coffee.
Six across, I noticed, was filled in "Heartfelt".
More hearts. The card, the cake, now this.
My interest moved up a notch.
By the time I finished my coffee I'd finished
the puzzle too. (It was no great intellectual
feat; the paper was just one of the tabloids.)
One clue had "Playwright Shaw's first
name", which was George, which was also
my own name. Another was "No star without
one", in five letters, which I worked
out was "Agent".
I had read somewhere that crossword puzzles
(as I say, I have never been a crossword
addict), are well-known sources of synchronicity.
Addicts say that they frequently find something
they've been thinking about for days cropping
up in one of the clues or as one of the answers.
That was what seemed to be happening to me.
I was on my way to see my agent, and this
whole chain of "false" or "genuine" or
simply "marginal" synchronicity
had started when I saw a playing card, the
ace of hearts, that reminded me of yet another
agent. And here I was finding my name, George,
in a crossword puzzle that also contained
the words "heartfelt" and "agent".
A man laughed loudly in another booth across
the room. I turned and saw that he was sitting
with his back to me and was talking on a
mobile phone. It was obvious that he was
as unaware of my presence as I had been until
then of his.
"Wow," he said to whoever he was
talking to and with absolutely no reference
to me, "that's quite a coincidence!"
When I left the cafe, I realized I'd been
sitting there longer than I thought; if I
didn't hurry, I'd be late for my lunch. I
took a cab, giving the address in Little
Italy where I was meeting my agent. As I
rode I continued turning the morning's events
over in my mind.
What I had was a string of coincidences
which, so far as I could see, meant nothing,
yet formed a pattern. But do patterns have
to mean something? Or, to put it another
way, can order arise from disorder without
there being any significance attached to
the process? Could so intricate a little
sequence of coincidences, such as I'd just
experienced, be pure fluke?
Or did such things, I asked myself, using
Wordsworth's phrase of which I'm sure Jung
would have approved, point to "something
far more deeply interfused"?
It was a while before I registered the fact
that my cab wasn't moving and hadn't been
for some time. I was staring at the same
stalled vehicles all around me and a stretch
of wall with a faded banner saying "Liquidation
Sale". Traffic had been running smoothly
till we reached a point just north of Penn
Station, where we hit a gridlock so dense
that it seemed as though all the vehicles
in it had been welded together into a sprawling,
immovable mass. There was the usual amount
of honking, arm-waving and insult-calling,
all to no avail. I decided my best bet was
to take the subway, so I paid off the cab
and started to walk briskly towards the nearest
At the top of the steps my mobile phone
rang. I'd finally given in to progress a
few months earlier and bought one. As far
as I was concerned, it was just one more
thing to lose; all the same I had to admit
that, when I didn't lose it, it was sometimes
"Hello," I said, backing up a
couple of steps and moving clear of the two-way
torrent of people entering and exiting the
A man's voice said, "Larry, how's it
"I'm sorry," I said, "you've
got a wrong number. This isn't Larry."
The man laughed and said, "Come on,
Larry, stop kidding around."
"My name isn't Larry," I repeated. "You
need to dial again."
"You sure sound like him."
"Listen," I said, growing a touch
exasperated by his insistence, "I don't
have time for this. I have to hang up now."
I did so and carried on down the steps.
I had some tokens in my pocket, so I went
straight through and followed the signs for
Another small coincidence happened on the
journey. The "heart" image cropped
up again. Across from my seat in the subway
was an advertisement for the American Heart
Association. I began to wonder - more whimsically
than anxiously - if fate was trying to tell
me something. Was I about to have some kind
of romantic adventure, or a myocardial infarction?
But I checked myself with a smile, marveling
at how fast we react to the slightest element
of strangeness: at how the tiniest dislocation
in the fabric of our everyday reality can
throw us into the arms of fantasy. All it
takes is an all but imperceptible change
in the rhythm of things. A coincidence or
When I reached my destination and emerged
into daylight, I still had a five minute
walk to the restaurant. I was already ten
minutes late, but that wasn't a disaster;
my agent would be contentedly sipping his
first martini and leafing through a copy
of the "Times". Nonetheless, I
hurried on as fast as I could.
I was vaguely aware that I was walking in
the direction of an old movie theatre, beautifully
kept in its near-pristine thirties design.
I knew it well because it had recently presented
an Orson Welles season. Sara was more of
a film fan than me, but I'd gone along with
her to see "Kane", "Ambersons" and "Touch
of Evil", all in what the publicity
boasted as "sparkling new prints".
The marquee reached out over the sidewalk,
all red and white glass with silver and black
trimmings. I glanced up at it, not really
interested in what was showing, but what
I saw stopped me in my tracks.
Facing me on the side of the marquee were
two words, arranged as follows:
People pushed past me in both directions
as I stood there. Patterns kept racing through
my brain, but refused to make sense. All
morning I had been seeing images of "heart" as
well as the printed word itself. Now here
it was once again spelled as a surname, the
name of my parents' mysterious friends, Jeremy
and "Larry" Hart. And "Larry" was
who the man on the phone had wanted to talk
to. Now this.
As I stared up at the name, I became aware
of a man on a ladder that brought him level
with it. I continued to watch in fascination
as he reached for the "T" of "HART",
then the "R", and handed them down
to a colleague on the ground. In a moment
all the letters had been removed and that
side of the marquee was blank; obviously
there was a change of programme that day.
I walked on underneath the canopy and out
the far side. There I stopped to look back
to see if the name "Larry Hart" was
repeated on that side.
What I saw was this:
GINGER ROGERS in "THE JOLSON STORY"
in "ROXIE HART"
As I watched, the two men dragged their
ladder over from the far side and began dismantling
these words too, starting on the outside
and working in.
I was, frankly, beginning to feel just a
little bit odd. I went on my way quickly,
anxious suddenly - and irrationally - to
reach the comforting familiarity of the restaurant
that I knew so well, and the reassuring company
of my agent and old friend.
But my mind was buzzing with questions and
possible answers. The first one was whether
somebody could be playing a joke on me. But
I didn't see how that was possible.
So what was going on?
Was something going on?
I remembered reading somewhere a theory
that just by thinking about synchronicity
you can make strange coincidences start happening
around you. I suppose I could believe it
up to a point, but only in the sense that
you might be more aware than usual of things
that could be interpreted as coincidences.
But even if the theory was true in a literal
sense, it didn't explain anything. Attracting
coincidences just by thinking about them
was perhaps even more extraordinary than
simply having them come at you out of the
Anyway, there was no escaping the fact that
since I had started thinking even half-seriously
about coincidence and the theory of synchronicity,
odd little coincidences had started happening
At the very least I could enjoy the comfortable
thought that my next book was taking shape
with gratifying ease and speed.
Maybe (the eternally optimistic dream of
every writer) this one would write itself.