We learn a lot through the interests of our friends and family, and it’s in this way that I’ve developed a second-hand familiarity with the Baltic states. Ten years ago my son went to Estonia, initially as a TEFL teacher and the following year he moved to Latvia where he’s stayed ever since. During this time he’s become very fond of the region and has amassed a lot of knowledge about its history and culture. So I wasn’t surprised when he sent a message to our family WhatsApp group, to tell us that thirty-two years ago this week, the Baltic Chain was formed. This was when people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed a human chain, holding hands across 420 miles and connecting the three capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. For fifteen emotional minutes on August 23rd 1989, two million people joined together in a peaceful protest against the illegal Soviet occupation of their countries. It was one of the earliest and longest unbroken human chains in history and contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the restoration of independence to the Baltic states.
Two years ago on the thirtieth anniversary of the Baltic Chain, Hong Kong organised its own version—a chain of 210,000 people standing in line across thirty miles, protesting against the extradition bill and demanding democratic elections. Over the years there have been a number of other chains gathering humans together and uniting them in support of a wide range of causes, and the biggest of these took place in Bangladesh in 2004. More than five million people joined hands across 652 miles to protest against the Government and to demand new polls.
Watching an old news clip about the Baltic Chain and reading about these others, I was struck by the power of peaceful protest but I also started thinking about the individual people who were in that chain. Some would be standing next to friends or family, but many would have strangers on one or both sides of them. And I wondered about the associations between them. Perhaps as they stood there waiting for the signal to join hands, some had chatted and discovered that they knew people in common or had other points of connection.
Like most people, I’ve stumbled into a few extraordinary coincidences in my own life—the sort of things that would sound ridiculously contrived and far-fetched if they appeared in works of fiction. And one of the strangest happened when I was waiting in a queue—a chain of sorts. It was 1977 and I was in my first term at London University. I’d spent a few weeks living in a hall of residence in Tooting but when I was offered the chance to move to one in the King’s Road, there was no competition between the locations, so I handed in my keys and skipped off to Chelsea. It didn’t take long to realise that I’d forgotten to remove my padlock key from the key-ring but although it was annoying, I figured I could get another one easily enough. A couple of days later I found myself at Euston Station on a Wednesday afternoon, in an enormous, slow queue of students, all waiting to get student railcards. For some reason that seems ridiculously inefficient now, the process of getting a railcard required you to turn up in person on a specified day and wait your turn. There must have been hundreds of us there, from all the colleges of the University. There were the well-known ones like UCL, LSE, Kings, Queen Mary, and Imperial and many more colleges that later got swallowed up in mergers—Queen Elizabeth, Bedford College, Chelsea, and Westfield—as well as a number of medical schools, art colleges and others covering specialist subjects like veterinary science, theology and pharmacy. With no smartphones to distract, people fell into conversation. I turned behind to a pleasant-looking young man, and asked where he was studying. “Chelsea,” he said which was quite a coincidence given the number of colleges represented there. “I’m at Chelsea” I said. “Where do you live?” When he replied, “Malcolm Gavin Hall,” I couldn’t stop myself from asking the inevitable but nosey question, “Which room are you in?” Somehow I knew he was going to say “335” and he didn’t disappoint. “Oh,” I said, “I’ve just moved out of there. That was my room.” Quick as a flash without missing a beat, he delved into his pocket and brought out some keys. “This must be yours,” he said, handing me my padlock key. It was as if I’d been programmed to ask the right questions, and it happened so easily and smoothly, that I thought maybe the universe intended us to work together to find a cure for cancer or at the very least produce some children. But instead we just had a nice chat. And that was it. A couple of times over the next year, we bumped into one another, and now I can’t even remember his name.
The thing that surprises me most was that we discovered that we had this connection in common. How often do we meet people and if we only knew which questions to ask, we would uncover all kinds of ways in which our lives overlap. How often do we pass people in the street that carry all of these delicious surprises inside them. That stranger sitting opposite on the train…the woman at the supermarket checkout…the homeless man on the street corner…the refugee in the news footage. We may be closer to them than we think. The first time I remember coming across the idea of connections was when my mother used to repeat the words of a popular song from her childhood; I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales. It dates from 1927 when the prince, later Edward VIII, was hugely popular. I’d get her to repeat it and was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary person could be so close to a prince. And then there’s the notion of six degrees of separation which is so well-known and somewhat murky. It was first proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in a short story called Chains. He was suggesting even then, that although there were great physical distances between people, their social distances were shrinking as people travelled and technology brought about improvements in communication. He believed that any two individuals could be connected through a network of, at most, five acquaintances. The phrase six degrees of separation became popular after John Guare’s 1990 play and the film that followed. A common criticism is that such a theory is unlikely to encompass connections to isolated groups of humans, such as those in the Amazon jungle but I don’t want to get bogged down here in the arguments for and against this proposition as they are many and complicated. However, several large-scale studies using emails and instant messaging to track connections between people have found that the average number of degrees of separation did come out at six, and according to network theories there are mathematical reasons why this should be so.
In keeping with the theme of online connections, I was intrigued to discover that there is a website called Six Degrees of Wikipedia that will tell you what degree of separation there is between any two of the fifty-four billion Wikipedia pages. I started with the pages for Mother Theresa and Jack the Ripper and in less than two seconds it had told me that there are two degrees of separation between them and two different routes that connect them. Then I tried exploring Wikipedia connections between Abraham Lincoln and Adele and discovered that they are separated by three degrees and that there are over seven hundred routes that connect them. I could have played with this for hours trying out increasingly unlikely combinations but as I had this blog to write, I forced myself to stop.
So far, the connections I’ve talked about here lie beneath the surface, undiscovered—but in my recent book The Interview Chain, the connections were clear to see, as each interviewee passed me on to someone that they know personally and admire. At twenty links it may have been somewhat short of the two million in the Baltic Chain but it did nonetheless travel 23,000 miles back and forth, traversing three continents and gathering up diverse experiences on its way. It started from a casual conversation on a boat on the Thames and one of the most surprising things was discovering how quickly from there, the links led me to events I had read about in the news. By Link Two I was talking to someone who had been at the Climate Change Negotiations and by Link Three my interviewee was giving me personal experiences of the Calais refugee camp. Later links led me to first-hand accounts of Kabul under the Taliban, the Rwandan genocide and the Ferguson Uprising.
I’ll say it again—we are closer to other people than we might think. And with all the extra things that we need to understand about the modern world, that’s more important now than ever before.