Lucky Knickers

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We’ve still got builders working busily round us as we settle into our new home. They’re finishing off various bits and pieces in a very good-humoured way and I’ll miss them when they move on. Usually we manage not to trip over one another too much but the other day I was on my way to the dustbin when I realised that the path was blocked. I could have simply ducked under the ladder that was propped against the wall but instead I chose to wait patiently whilst Paul the builder finished sawing a piece of wood. As I stood there holding a bag of rubbish and getting wet in the drizzle, I wondered whether I could dispense with my superstitions—I’m embarrassed to say that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Old habits run deep and these have been passed to me through my mother who was full of odd notions. She wouldn’t open an umbrella in the house, she threw salt over her shoulder, and she said that if you accidentally put your clothes on inside out then you mustn’t take them off and put them on the right way. I’ve never been convinced by that as I don’t recall her ever going out and looking strange. Perhaps she just gave lip service to that one.

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Annoyingly, I acquired a new superstition a few years ago when a friend told me that failing to greet a single magpie brings bad luck. At the time I was in the midst of some tricky life events and didn’t dare risk making them worse so although it was something new to worry about, I started doing what my friend does, which is to salute them. It quickly became a reflex action and suddenly these imposing black and white birds seemed to be everywhere, hopping about like lone delinquents. Then I met the man who is now my husband. As we drove through the New Forest on one of our first dates, I was aware out of the corner of my eye that he was looking at me curiously. We were both wary at this early stage of our relationship, and eventually he asked why I kept jerking my arm up to my head. We stopped for a drink in the garden of a pretty little pub and I tried to explain. But it sounded silly and as a confirmed scientist he was bemused.

Of course I know rationally that superstition is nonsense. It’s just a collection of odd habits and an unquestioning trust in magical beliefs. The psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman found experimentally that people who use superstitions to ward off bad luck were no luckier than those who were not superstitious.

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Perhaps it’s time to drop the funny habits and salutes. Particularly as some of Wiseman’s other research into luck is thought-provoking and much more useful. He got people to rate themselves as either lucky or unlucky and then compared them. The reality of luck is that people who believe they’re lucky aren’t inherently luckier than those who consider themselves unlucky. They’re no more likely to win the lottery, for example, because that’s simply down to probability. But where the difference between ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people starts to matter is in the way they create their opportunities.

People who believe they’re lucky have different personality characteristics from those who feel unlucky. They’re more extrovert so they keep in contact with people better, smile more and make more eye contact. These social skills create opportunities. ‘Lucky’ people are also more open. They welcome unpredictability and are not bound by conventions. As such, they tend to travel more and to welcome new experiences. Wiseman describes a man who noticed that he always talked to the same kind of people at parties. So he decided to disrupt the routine, make life more fun and create new opportunities by thinking of a colour and gravitating towards people wearing that colour. At one party he only spoke to women wearing red, and at another to men wearing black.

Even those ‘lucky’ people who have real bad luck, tend to turn it round. I saw this with a dear friend who was dying of a dreadful disease. She never asked, “Why me?” Instead she said in her final days that she felt very lucky because she was surrounded by love.

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I recently watched Inside Obama’s White House and there was a wonderful moment when Obama had to struggle with a difficult decision about healthcare. ‘You’ll need to be lucky for it to work,’ said his advisers. He stood still for a few moments and stared out of the window. ‘Where are we?’ he asked. ‘Sir, we’re in the Oval Office,’ came the reply. ‘And what’s my name?’ he said. ‘President Barack Obama,’ replied the aide. ‘Then I feel lucky every day,’ he said.

The United States of America is going to need some luck on Tuesday and I for one, am not taking any chances. I’ll be saluting those magpies, keeping my fingers firmly crossed and wearing my lucky knickers. I only hope that Hillary’s wearing hers too.

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Remains of the Hay

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Last week I went shopping with my daughter, Emma, and as always she gave me something new to think about. She works in business development and has recently been exploring wearable technology. One particular growth area is lifelogging when people capture every aspect of their life by continuous video recording using a camera in their clothing, on their glasses or round their neck. One of the issues with lifelogging, though, must surely be in identifying what’s noteworthy in amongst the daily round of cleaning the loo, munching toast and snoring.

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As it happens this week has had less loo cleaning than normal as I’ve been at the Hay Festival. It was my first visit and turned out to be a real treat. Hay-on-Wye is an astonishing small town just inside Wales with thirty second-hand bookshops and a population of about 1,500. The Festival of Literature & Arts was devised around a kitchen table in 1988 and was said to have been funded from the winnings of a game of poker. Today, it’s a world-class festival of ideas, with international offshoots; you can if you want go to Hay Festivals in Mexico, Spain, Peru, Ireland and Colombia. Bill Clinton spoke at the 2008 Festival and called it ‘Woodstock for the Mind.’

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I often feel frustrated that most of life leaves such faint traces in my memory. It’s back to that old idea that if you don’t have reminders then there’s no proof that you were there. And this week there was much that I would like to have held onto. As usual, though, I was distracted by random thoughts that jostled in sideways, and so in the absence of lifelogging technology I shall have to rely on a disparate collection of the bits that did stick. With hundreds of events taking place over ten days, everyone there will come away with a different set of impressions. Here are some of mine.

I could have listened to Bridget Kendall, the BBC’s Diplomatic correspondent for hours. She was fascinating on the subject of Russia and described the occasions when she’s met Vladimir Putin. In 2001 he’d been president for just a year and she talked of meeting two Mr Putins. There was the public one, and the personal one who was less certain of himself. When asked who wore the trousers in his household he laughed and said it was his wife. Five years later, the Russian economy had grown and he was stronger and different. Now there was just one Mr Putin. The one with steely-blue eyes who tried to score points off the foreign journalists.

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Then there was the philosopher AC Grayling, who spoke softly and intimately as if he was telling us a bedtime story. His account of the changes in thinking brought about by the Thirty Years War was illuminating but it was a small nugget about Newton that stuck with me. Everyone knows about gravity, the apple, and calculus, but I’d not known that he spent a great deal of time looking for hidden messages in the Bible. He believed that if he could only crack its numerological code then he would discover a blueprint for the universe.

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AC Grayling: photo by Ian Scott

Joan Bakewell talked about what it’s like to grow old and it was very hard to believe that she is now 83. There was lots there of substance, politically and personally, but I liked what she said about her pastimes. All her life she has collected postcards from galleries around the world. She keeps them in shoeboxes and often these days she thinks to herself, ‘I’ll have an afternoon with my postcards.” She takes them out and looks at them closely. Each time she sees something new. She’s also patron of the National Piers Society and enthused about the contrast between the upperside which is all jollity and the underside which is sinister and eerie with its barnacles and detritus.

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On Monday afternoon, Danny Dorling, an Oxford professor of social geography talked about analysing the three most recent censuses up to 2011. There was a huge amount of data there but I was struck by an unexpected trend. Everyone thinks that life expectancy in the UK is increasing but when you look closely then it’s not so straightforward. Immigrant populations are living longer overall and boosting the figures but there’s been a big increase in people dying in their late 70s or early 80s and these are mostly middle-class women. The life expectancy of this group seems to be falling, and Professor Dorling speculated about the role of austerity in this. Meals on Wheels have been abolished, and there have been significant cuts to rural bus timetables and healthcare services.

The comedian Susan Calman talked about her ‘crab of hate’ depression and managed to make it both moving and humorous. Earlier, I’d listened and watched as Benedict Cumberbatch, Maxine Peake, Olivia Colman and friends read out a diverse collection of letters and I’d also passed Germaine Greer in the street and recognised her indomitable voice before I saw her face. On Monday evening, the award-winning documentary maker, Norma Percy chatted about the making of her recent series, Inside Obama’s White House. She described Obama as ‘the coolest guy in the world’, and was granted an interview with him. Unfortunately she missed it as she got mown down by a bicycle whilst walking towards the taxi that was due to take her to Heathrow. In the ambulance the paramedics said conversationally to this unassuming grey-haired older lady, ‘And what were you planning to do today, love?’ Her reply that she was going to the White House to interview Obama only served to increase their concern about her level of brain injury.

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Norma Percy: photo by Peabody Awards

But the highlight for me was a session on punctuation by the linguist and broadcaster, David Crystal. It might not sound the most gripping of subjects but in the hands of a master speaker it became fascinating, and the audience of 1,700 was rapt. He set out to write a book about the usage and history of punctuation marks in the English language and expected it to be about 150 pages. The rules are so complex and inconsistent, though, that it ended up at more than double that length. And no punctuation mark attracts more inconsistency than the apostrophe. You have only to look at London underground stations to get a taste of this. There’s King’s Cross, then Earls Court with Baron’s Court right next to it. Harrods and Claridges should by rights be Harrod’s and Claridge’s, and Waterstone’s recently transmogrified into Waterstones causing massive annoyance to pedants.

Later, I went to another excellent talk by David Crystal. This time it was about eloquence. He analysed some of the great speeches including Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ victory address. And I learned that the concentration of listeners wanes briefly every five minutes or so. Perhaps my random jostling thoughts are quite normal after all. Wise speakers anticipate this pattern and give their audience regular breaks; they might pause for a sip of water, or just stay silent for a moment.

I was at the Festival from Sunday to Wednesday and it was a wrench to leave. Had I stayed till the end I might have seen Michael Palin, Simon Callow, Fay Weldon, KT Tunstall, Jeanette Winterson and any number of other less famous people with interesting things to say. What I have done, though, is to book accommodation for next year. Who knows—if I keep going then I might one day see Obama there. Like Norma Percy, I too think he’s the coolest guy in the world.

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