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BARBICAN LIFE


in intellectual dawdling, who tilt at authority, who laugh at the status quo, who engage our interests despite ourselves. Serendipity, in others words, has become a national skill, not just a part of the national culture, during our Queen’s sixty year reign. Serendipity? (The queue was moving). He thought that was just chance, or luck. You have to know the original story, to see why it is much more than that. I fell into what he calls ‘parent mode’ – and told him the story. Serendip was the old name for Sri Lanka. To refresh your memory, the story was about two princes, who encountered the owner of a lost camel; they had never actually seen it, but they described what it was like – simply by ‘reading the signposts’, you might say. The owner accused them of having stolen it, but the princes explained to the open court, how they had come by their conclusions – must have been a lame camel, because of the marks of a dragging foot on the road, etc. – These princes were unusual in that they thought nothing was unworthy of their attention. Serendipity encompasses a peculiar set of things akin to creativity - a spirit of enquiry, to look for and find patterns in unrelated things, to dawdle, but not forget one’s purposes, to make meaning from unrelated events – it leads to inventive solutions, I told my son. It was of course entirely my fault that


his father, having listened to my definition of the word, instituted a game of ‘catch’, with his son, across the queue, by rolling up my shawl into a small ball. The members of the queue responded each in his own way – some smiled indulgently, others looked severe. Here was serendipity at a cross section with disruption. It was ever thus. Has serendipity ever produced


anything useful, though? Our enquiries into our physical building blocks came to a vital discovery in 1953, (the Queen’s coronation year) when Dr James Watson, along with Professor Francis Crick, inspired by Dr Rosalind Franklin, discovered the double helix structure of DNA. This was not their main project. They had just been ‘interested’ in the idea. They built a model. It got them the Nobel Prize of course. The quest for knowledge of what we are made of, and how we are


Lost camel found again?


structured, has led to the Human Genome project, which carries on still, yielding information, and wonder. The great thing is that we haven’t stopped asking questions. And serendipity is still rewarded. The game of ‘catch’ continued as the queue moved forward. My eleven year old appeared to be indifferent to the decisions of the Nobel Committee. Our capacity for accepting


serendipitous activity divides the population – those who approve and those who feel threatened. I caught the improvised ball, and gave my son what I thought was a key statistic. I told him that we were about 3 times richer in the United Kingdom, today, than we had been in 1952 : he seemed unimpressed, or at least, unconvinced. So I brought out another statistic - We used to spend about 25% of our National Income on defence; since the fall of th


e Berlin W all, this has reduced


to less than 10% - the end of communism was good for our country too. Our prime minister at the time, Mrs Thatcher, had hated communism because she said “the individual is an end to himself, a responsible moral being endowed with the ability to choose between good and evil.” Most of us had, on the whole, agreed. The falling wall captured his imagination. Did you say it fell? Wh


Germans crossed the checkpoint in their numbers. It has been hard since, but Germany was reunited. It was a moving few days. My son’s expression was suitably solemn, but really he did not ‘get’ it. Soon afterwards, I told him, Checkpoint Charlie which his grandfather had had to cross regularly, in his days of being posted in Germany, went out of commission. My son smiled up at his father ‘Checkpoint Charlie?’ Surely his mother had made that one up. I must say, something inside me simply rejoiced at his disbelief – so very quickly, that name had turned into ‘a story’. I thought I would be on safer ground


with the advent of the Personal Computer.


‘There was no such word as y?I


told him what the falling of the wall represented, and Reagan’s speech two months before (I was in West Germany at the time): 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall.' Our queen had greeted Reagan with warmth on our behalf, just a year before that. Under Leonard Bernstein’s baton ‘alle menschen werden bruder’, floated out, and strangers hugged each other as East


aPC’ I explained. Ordinary people did not have computers at home. ‘So how did they do their maths homework, then?’ I was asked. His father said ‘pencil and paper’. He smiled – parents could be fanciful, really. The conversation idled along to football, as three young Italians in their local team scarves submitted themselves to being checked at the security point before getting inside the basilica. We were coming up to the top of the queue. They happened to be in the colours of a team they both recognised. His father then delivered what was, to my son, a huge eye opener.


‘It wasn’t


until 1967 that we had Colour TV– we watched everything in black and white’ Our son could hardly believe his ears. ‘You mean you couldn’t tell if it was an Arsenal player who’d scored from the colour of his shirt?’ So you had to check out what had happened on the BBC Sports website, right? We explained that the Internethad come along even later than that, in the


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