18th November 2011 — About Writing

Coincidence

Writers are sometimes criticised for using coincidence in plotting. But many classic novels depend on coincidence.  Jane Eyre, wandering destitute on the moors, stumbles on a house belonging to hitherto unknown cousins. Elizabeth Bennet, travelling with her uncle and aunt, finds they plan to visit Pemberley – to which, coincidentally and unexpectedly, Mr Darcy return in time to meet Elizabeth again. Dickens, who used coincidence a lot, said they happened all the time in real life so why shouldn’t they occur in fiction?
Quite so. Life is full of coincidence. I was a recent guest on the BBC Radio 4 programme A Good Read. My fellow guest, Stephanie Flanders, the BBC Economics editor, chose The Great Crash by J K Galbraith. Shortly after the programme was broadcast, I met journalist and author *Mike Walsh.
“What a coincidence,” said Mike. “I heard you on the radio talking about J K Galbraith. I met Galbraith in 1967. I had lunch with him. He told me he’d saved the life of Andreas Papandreou. And now Greece and the name Papandreou are in the news again.”
Galbraith told Mike how, in April 1967, he'd got a phone call in the middle of the night telling him there’d been a military coup in Greece. The left-wing economist and politician, Andreas Papandreou (father of George Papandreou) had been arrested and would probably be killed – unless Galbraith could get the US President, Lyndon Johnson, to intervene. Galbraith duly telephoned the White House and got a message to the President. Towards daybreak, he got a message back from LBJ – “I’ve told those Greek bastards to lay off that sonofabitch, whoever he is.”
Greece was run by a military Junta for seven years. But Papandreou survived.

*Mike co-wrote, with journalist and film-maker Don Jordan, a book about a little-known aspect of the Slave Trade - White Cargo.