Having lived in Wirral and Oxford until I was 22, I’d but rarely travelled on the Tube until I started working in Upminster. Even then, I travelled mostly by bus or I walked. It took me a while to work out where the lines were connected, how to avoid the interchanges with the longest walks, and that the Victoria Line was the one to ride, if you had a choice. There is the Tube Knowledge to be mastered.

You see, hear and smell all manner of things on the London Underground. We capital-dwellers seem inured to almost everything: in part because we have seen so much nonsense and have become hard to shock, but also because the safest option is to let your eyes glaze over while counting down the stops until you can make your escape. Beggars, buskers, drunks: they can be found on any underground railway. You tend to encounter more “nutters” on the Circle Line, I’ve noticed; amateur clergymen, for example, can spend the whole day going round and round and round, testifying and singing hymns, without travelling to mysterious suburbs such as Morden or Cockfosters or having to get off and change trains.

You soon learn to ignore it; as a last resort you can move to another car, “praying” the nuisance doesn’t follow you.

If you look unfriendly you are likely to be left alone

Back then, every couple of weeks I would meet my mates in town. We would have a few pints and a ruby before going our separate ways. In those days, you may be surprised to learn, there was a bar on the platform at Sloane Square. But it was another world; smoking was allowed on the trains until the mid-80s.

The Hole in the Wall, Sloane Square, westbound platform

Some of us were not averse to having “one for the track”, after which I had to endure a bladder-bursting, 25-stop journey back to my digs in Hornchurch.

***

In the mid-1980s, after I’d moved to South London, I struck up a conversation with a young woman sitting opposite me who, as I soon discovered, was from Thailand. I can’t remember why we started chatting, but I got off at Clapham Common with her address – or perhaps she left with mine. A few days later she invited me to dinner. Or did she invite me there and then? Yet again, I can’t remember… 

I duly arrived one evening at her flat. It was in a mansion block – in Knightsbridge, I think. Just one room with a tiny kitchenette and toilet. Perhaps there was a separate bedroom. I wondered what it was costing her and how much was going to the agency. She cooked us a stir-fry: spicy… but not very. She wasn’t sure I would be able to tolerate the requisite amount of chilli. As an avid consumer of hot Indian curries, I would have coped.

We had a pleasant enough evening

But we didn’t have a lot in common. I didn’t know anything about Thailand. Did she have a job, or was she in London to learn English? Probably the latter. I recall her saying that she had had a bad experience at the hairdresser’s, because “They don’t know how to cut Asian hair”. It had never occurred to me that there was such a thing. Obviously Africans have curly hair, but what was different about Asian hair?

I went home at a respectable hour without any desire to repeat the experience, and that was the last I saw of her. I didn’t want her to imagine that I was interested in forming a relationship. To be blunt, I did not find her attractive… though quite possibly she felt the same way about me.

The entire episode seems so bizarre, so utterly improbable, that I have sometimes wondered if I imagined it. What are the chances a sane woman would invite a man who she had just met on a train to supper à deux at her own flat? How naive can you be? Did she think all Englishmen were gentlemen? What if she had been more alluring? If I’d seen her again, perhaps she would have invited me to Thailand for a holiday. Perhaps her family was rich. Perhaps this, that, and the other…

So what if?

According to the Sliding Doors Principle, it would not have taken a lot for my life to have veered in a different direction. It sounds a little far-fetched, doesn’t it? I was hardly likely to run off to a faraway land, as it I had only just started out on what seemed like a promising new career. On the other hand there wasn’t a lot to keep me in London. I had a job that paid very little, and I rented a room in a house in Clapham. I had taught English in Spain and could probably have found a similar job in Thailand. The fact is that I was already thinking of leaving work and going to live Barcelona, where I did have some influential contacts and a (potential) girlfriend. So what was the probability that I would have run away to South-East Asia? Something between 0% and 100%.

Search me

Not that this has been eating me up for the last 35 years. I’ve no idea why this memory should have resurfaced at this time. No, I’m very happy with how things worked out, because not long afterwards I took a job at the British Library and it was there that I met the woman to whom I have been married for 30 years. And yet… I could very easily not have applied for that job, because it was not me but someone I worked with who spotted an ad in TLS and said, “Colin, you could do that”. You can never be sure where your action, or lack of same, will lead you.

***

Although I’m far from being a blind optimist, I have never spent much time worrying about whether I took the wrong path here or there – for example, that I should have studied another subject or gone to a different university or not to any, or taken a different job, or moved to another country. Maybe I made the right choice, maybe I didn’t; but I am not complaining about my lot. I’m fortunate that nothing terrible has ever happened to me, to make me re-examine my youthful decisions.

All this pointless speculation about an incident of no importance, but that could have been, if you stretch credulity to snapping point, of significant importance, has got me thinking about the basis on which we make decisions. Much of what we go through and become as individuals is based on chance. (I’ve never got on with the concept of fate or divine providence, let alone the multiverse.)

And so I will digress once again…

I’ve previously written that I carried on with my M Litt thesis in the 80s when I was no longer enjoying it; I was getting poorer, older and more fed up by the day. But I felt I had to persevere, or else the previous four, five, six years – and quite a lot of parental money – would have been wasted.

There is a concept in economics called “sunk cost” (i.e. the time, effort or money you can never get back). A classic example is when a gambler refuses to cut his losses but carries on “investing” good money after bad. I recall, a couple of years ago, abandoning a Shakespeare play in the interval because I couldn’t hear properly and I wasn’t enjoying it. This, despite a voice inside me saying, “You’ve paid for that ticket, so you ought to stay until the bitter end”. I must have learned something over the previous 40 years: “OK, so I’ve wasted some money, but why waste the rest of the evening as well?” What a relief it was to stay in the theatre bar rather than return to the auditorium!

Government spending is rife with examples of sunk costs: Concorde is one; HS2 is probably another. For political and legal reasons the show must go on. Ponder the following definition:

Loss aversion is when price paid becomes a benchmark for value

Some of my fellow post-grads did “cut their losses”, leaving university and never looking back. Or did they? Do any regret, four decades on, being too quick to give up? I find it fascinating how people deal with misfortune at different stages of life.

There are all sorts of fantasies and fallacies at work

Some people have a tendency to accept and even justify anything that befalls them, no matter how terrible, on the basis that if a particular misfortune hadn’t happened, something good would not have followed. “If my first wife hadn’t died I would never have met my second wife”. So that’s alright then. Or, in the hope that something wonderful will eventually happen, they struggle on rather than face up to their situation and change tack. Easier to keep going and hope your investment will pay off… one day.

You can twist this way of thinking into a whole theory of world history, arguing that the misery caused by the Black Death or the French Revolution – or in the case of Pangloss, the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake – turned out to be a good thing, oddly enough, because those who came afterwards did live in a better world. I won’t mention Brexit but I’m writing this on Armistice Day. They Did Not Die in Vain because we can’t bear the thought that they might have.

Classical economists maintain that past mistakes are irrelevant to decision-making and that the only things that matter are future consequences. It is hard to accept but it really is no good crying over spilt milk. Even if you never had that milk to start with.

Is that clear? I thought not

***

In other news, and bringing these ramblings back to the concept of probability, I’ve been reading a book called Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.

Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner

In short, in very short, it’s about why we are not very good at making forecasts – except that a very few people are. These unusual people gather information, constantly update their knowledge, take every possible factor into account and come up with a probability (as a percentage) that something specific will / will not happen within a defined period of time.

The authors show that you do not have to be an expert professional in a particular field to come up with accurate forecasts; in fact, it may be advantageous if you are not. The worst forecasters tend to be those with an unshakeable mindset, such as lifelong socialists, capitalists or religious fundamentalists. Their problem is that they already know what will happen because it has to accord with their world view: everything happens for a reason, things are unfolding according to God’s plan, the proletariat will triumph, there is no such thing as coincidence. They know what is good and what is bad, and their moral certainty will skew their judgement about the likelihood of something coming to pass.

For example, what was the probability that Bin Laden was in the compound at Abbottabad at the moment American forces went in? How could the President be sure when he was poised to give the operation the green light? He would have taken the views of his intelligence agencies, but the truth is that he could never have been entirely sure.

Maybe 60%, maybe 95%, but never, never 100%

It is obvious that successful forecasters have to be able to process huge amounts of information and understand how the future may be impacted by seemingly irrelevant events but more than that, they must always be willing to admit error and change course.

Food for thought, I hope. More ramblings soon.

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