How much unexpected meetings or chance encounters that lead to seismic life changes are indeed down to chance or are merely inevitable moves in a preordained plan depends, I guess, on your view of man as either an autonomous animal in control of his own destiny or as a mere pawn in God’s grand scheme. The Osmonds certainly fell on ‘the plan’ side of the argument, as the title of their 1973 concept album testified – though why ‘Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool’ fitted in to His big idea remains an extremely mystifying example of the Almighty moving in a very mysterious way.
Sticking with all things Merseyside, take 6 July 1957. Skiffle is the first of many teenage fads to come, and a church fête gives The Kids a chance to strum their washboards amidst the Morris dancers and a display by the City of Liverpool Police Dogs. On this occasion, The Kids are a bunch of school pals called The Quarrymen, led by a 16-year-old named John Lennon. The cocky leader of the pack shares a mutual friend with an equally overconfident adolescent called Paul McCartney; said friend introduces the most successful song-writing partnership in musical history to each other for the first time that day. And so the wheels of a cultural revolution are slowly set in motion with neither party remotely aware of it. How could they be?
It’s quite possible McCartney might have decided not to accept his pal’s offer to visit Woolton that summer’s day in 1957; after all, Macca had only just turned 15, still at a young enough age to be susceptible to other offers characteristic of a 1950s British childhood. If he’d gone fishing or train-spotting or had indulged in a jumpers-for-goalposts kick-about, the world would have kept on turning and none of these activities would have altered it, unlike the meeting at that church fête, which did – in many ways, for all of us. One could argue the mutual friend of Lennon & McCartney – Ivan Vaughan – was a pivotal figure in modern history, yet he could just as easily not have been. On such wafer-thin paper is history written.
The tempting ‘What if?’ scenario has generated many speculative and imaginative alternatives to historical events over the years: think of a novel such as Robert Harris’s ‘Fatherland’ taking place in a parallel universe 1960s, twenty years after Nazi Germany won World War II. Counterfactual history approaches the concept with a more academic eye, though many historians see it as an essentially pointless exercise; Nazi Germany didn’t win WWII, but was that always destined to be the final score on the eve of kick-off?
Certain figures whose actions changed the course of world history often appear to have led charmed lives, as though there was indeed a plan in mind for them. As Andrew Roberts highlights in his new biography of Winston Churchill, the Great British icon was born two months premature, suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a child and was stabbed as a schoolboy; he regularly diced with death as a soldier, and civilian life was punctuated by three car crashes and two plane crashes, all of which he survived along with numerous strokes and heart attacks. Pure chance or preordained?
If one believes our destinies are already mapped out for us before we even arrive in the world, one could almost adopt a petulant attitude to our apparently powerless part in directing those destinies. What’s the point in trying if we’re only acting out actions penned in advance anyway, being little more than marionettes whose every move is dictated by some celestial puppet master? If whatever we do makes no difference to the eventual outcome, we could consciously live a life of inactive isolation, surrendering to sloth and deliberately avoiding effort altogether. Then again, by doing so we may well be merely fulfilling a designated role after all. It’s a conundrum if life seems frustratingly impervious to our attempts to improve it, as though we permanently sleep on the wrong side of the bed.
We’ve all retrospectively recognised moments in life when we’ve stood at a crossroads and chosen a specific route from several options available to us. These options could have been deliberated upon at length beforehand or we may have just thrown caution to the wind with an ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ moment. If the consequences of our decision fail to deliver, it’s unavoidable that years later we ponder on what might have happened had we chosen one of the other options. Middle-age is especially prone to such hindsight musings, though only if we don’t find what we’re looking for once we get there. And, of course, there’s always the nagging belief that what we didn’t do would have turned out so much better than what we actually did. If only…
When constructing these parallel universe lives, it pays to pause and recall the saving graces that emerged from even the darkest of times, those times we become convinced life could have done without. In my own experience, feline and canine companions came out of a period in the 1990s I often wish I could erase from memory, yet both cat and dog long outlived its merciful end, enriching my existence for years afterwards; without that painful period, I would have been denied the joy they brought. Therefore, I accept it was necessary – my own personal 40 days and nights in the wilderness. And I’m sure we’ve all had them.
I’ve never visited a fortune-teller nor bought into their mystical shtick, not out of any inflexible opinion that they pedal pure hokum, but mainly because I genuinely have no desire to see into the future – even if it were possible. Should the crystal ball show me something I don’t want to see, I’d be convinced the future is already arranged and it’d be futile me trying to change it. And feeling as though someone else is scripting that future puts one back into the worst kind of childhood mindset, trapped in a world where all-powerful beings, from parents to teachers, are in control of everything that happens to you. Your input is negligible in terms of impact compared to theirs, so why bother?
One problem with accepting the preordained notion of life as a readymade plan is that, unlike the end result of WWII, it doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes a luminous path ahead that certainly feels preordained as it generates good vibrations is abruptly blocked and we are rerouted against our will, back down a darker avenue as the trite ‘well, it just wasn’t meant to be’ excuse is trotted out. One could either behave like a senior Met officer and lock one’s self in one’s car when confronted by an unexpected and unpleasant turn of events or one could face them head on. But the latter depends on whether or not one has faith in the possibility of a reward for doing so; and faith, like love, trust and hope, is not always the most accessible of subscriptions when life’s size-nine’s have your groin (and your crystal balls) in their sights. But maybe that’s the fate that always awaits we fools who (like Blanche DuBois) still believe in magic…
© The Editor