I have always liked the word ‘serendipity’. It trips off the tongue with a light, uplifting quality. ‘Seren’ in Welsh means a star, but the word also evokes ‘serenity’ in English. While ‘dipity’ conjures up dippity-dooh-dah and, by association, other happy-to-be-alive ditties. Not to mention ‘dippy’ and ‘ditsy’ and other such words that tame what some might think of as madness into loveable and harmless eccentricity. Its near synonyms are quite different. ‘Fate’ seems sombre and doom-laden, ‘luck’ superstitious, ‘chance’ reckless and random, ‘fortune’ overtinged with greed, and ‘synchronicity’ just plain pretentious. Even its etymology is charming. It comes from a Persian fairy tale about three princes of Serendip who (according to Walpole, quoted in Wikipedia which, I am ashamed to say I consulted on this) “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.
After my annus horribilis of 2010, with its construction nightmares and cash flow crises and illnesses, 2011 has started with some delightful moments of serendipity which have restored my faith in human niceness and the benignity of the universe.
I will tell you now about just one of these. When the building was sufficiently advanced to make it habitable, I advertised for a tenant for the flat at the top of my house in the London Review of Books. Unlike a previous failed attempt on Gumtree, all the responses to this ad were from people who seemed both nice and interesting. Many were from academics, artists and writers (or, in one case, a writer’s agent) who were looking for somewhere to stay for a short period (my fault: I hadn’t worded it clearly enough) but there were several looking for a home and I had no trouble at all finding a delightful tenant and made new friends among several of those who didn’t end up living here. After it had been let, I received an enquiry from someone whose email signature described him as the Director of the Society for Curious Thought. I was so intrigued that I asked him about it and discovered a website ( that traverses the boundaries between science and politics and art; the visual, the verbal and the musical. He was interested in my work too and over a period of a few hours we shared ideas and he asked me whether i had anything I would like to submit for publication. It happened that, between two of these emails, when looking for another file altogether, I had stumbled on a piece that I wrote seven years ago that was never published for all the reasons that the Society for Curious Thought exists to address. It was not written in the conventions of the usual genres my writing falls into: academic or journalistic or policy grey-paper, falling somewhere between social theory, autobiography and descriptive narrative. The editor of the journal it was originally written for had conceded that it was ‘beautifully written’ but was adamant that ‘we couldn’t publish something like that unless it was by somebody really famous’. Simon Marriott, the artist and writer who runs the Society for Curious Thought, had no such reservations and published it, with incredible speed, at| despite it being now seven years out of date. I am very happy to be in such good company.
In retrospect, I find that I am less unsympathetic than I was originally to that original editor’s conviction that readers will only be interested in the inner life of someone who is already famous. Yes, it smacks unpleasantly of the values of the popular press with their obsession with ‘celebs’ and yes, it is undoubtedly part of the more general trend in fiction publishing to focus only on potential best-sellers, with authors who can be marketed like rock stars – with particularly detrimental effects on anyone who writes modestly or with sublety and especially cruel to women writers, as was vividly demonstrated in the study by Vida of the proportions of male and female writers reviewed in the major english language literary papers (see Looking round at my friends who write, I see that older women writers are especially penalised. Nevertheless, I now think he (of course that editor was a he) had a bit of a point. There is a fine line to be drawn between Montaignean reflection and gush, between the chronicles of a serious diarist and those round robins one gets at Christmas from barely-remembered acquaintances. I am terrified of becoming like the relative who sends out a letter each year to a huge mailing list in the conviction that the most banal details of her daily life are of intrinsic interest to everyone, rather like an indulged toddler who enters the room, breaking up the adult conversation, to announce proudly ‘I done a poo!’. Any act of writing – or indeed any other kind of creation – of course runs this risk and this perhaps explains how extraordinarily difficult it can be to start an article or a story or a painting. Will it be seen as making a spectacle of oneself, showing off, parading as an emperor with no clothes or exhibiting the self-indulgence of one who has no right to be so privileged? Worse, will it reveal the creator as trite or second-hand or just plain wrong? How many blogs and twitterings and youtube postings, I wonder, result from an act of courage by someone consciously braving such risks? Perhaps not many. But the sheer scale of their outpourings, heroic or not, suggests to me that, in our capacities as readers and spectators and listeners, we now have a greater need of good editors, curators and impresarios to filter them than at any other time in history.

1 thought on “Serendipity

  1. Hi Ursula a serenditipitous blast from the past having just become a friend on Facebook I noticed your blog.Serenditipy is a great word and always reminds me of my favourite sociology article title stumbled across in the sylvan setting of Essex University Library back in the 1960s.It was an article on the sociology of science called ” the case of the fluffy eared rabbit a case of serendipity gained and serendipity lost”! Wonderful isnt it and if I remember a good article anyway lovely to be in touch after all these years I shall communicate more on Facebook after I wake up in time for Andy Marr and the Archers love Hugh

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