Serendipity, once voted the nation’s favourite word, is an increasingly frequent visitor in my life. It means a happy accident, or a pleasantly unexpected turn of events.
The word was coined by Horace Walpole in the mid-18th century, after reading a Persian fairytale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes, he explained, ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.’
(There is nothing serendipitous about the fact that we use Walpole’s house, Strawberry Hill, an extraordinary gothic fantasy in leafy Twickenham, as the venue for our one-day London Dark Angels courses. He was a man of letters – more than 4,000 of them – and the author of the first-ever gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. Our courses are about writing. But I digress …)
I’ve written here before about a year I spent travelling through Latin America in my early twenties. I kept a very detailed journal of the trip and in idle moments I still sometimes dip into it. It offers intriguing, though not always edifying, glimpses of my very much younger self.
Returning from a two-week trip on a cargo boat around the Galapagos Islands, we made our way to the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, to witness their extravagant Easter processions. There we met a young American called Phil. He had moved to Ecuador to write a book and was renting a house some distance outside the city. He invited us to stay: me, my girlfriend and a Canadian girl we were travelling with at that point.
The house was in a beautiful valley that reminded me a little of Scotland. We stayed with him for a few days, enjoying the comfort of being in a private home for the first time for several months. One day he asked if I would like to take LSD with him. Feeling generally adventurous, I said yes.
Phil was used to it. I wasn’t. In fact, it was my first time and as these things go, it wasn’t a howling success: an eight-hour white-knuckle ride, equal parts euphoria and terror, no doubt intensified by the fact of being in the thinner atmosphere at nearly 10,000 feet above sea-level. In any event, it was two or three days before the feelings of disorientation wore off and I felt grounded enough to set out on the road again, though I bore Phil no ill-will. He had been as helpful as he could be, given that he was tripping too. So our journey continued; and once back in the UK we fairly soon lost contact with him.
About six weeks ago I happened to re-read my account of this episode. I began to wonder what had become of Phil. Had he finished his book? Had he stayed in Ecuador? I knew his second name and that he came originally from Kentucky. I went online and eventually found a reference to someone that I thought was probably him, living in Louisville, but there was no email address. I put my search to one side and life took over.
Then, about three weeks ago, I received an email. I didn’t recognise the sender’s address but something made me open it. It was a short message and it included these words:
I hope I am not a bad memory for you, but I expect that indeed I am a memory … You took LSD with me in my sparsely furnished rented house in San Rafael, outside Quito. Things didn’t go perfectly well. The day was cold, and I had done nothing to prepare for guests … I remember starting a rather pathetic fire in the fireplace to try to warm you up. I apologize for my poor hosting.
After the best part of 44 years we must have been looking for one another at almost exactly the same moment. I replied at once, and told him he had nothing whatever to apologise for. He replied in turn and now I shall write further to him.
I delight in such connections, of course, but what really is serendipity? How do these things happen? Is it the collective unconscious? Is there the possibility of some kind of energetic link, amplified in this case perhaps by our shared LSD experience? I don’t know what the odds would be on our reconnecting; but it feels much too reductive, much too impoverishing to dismiss it as simply some random accident, a lucky toss of the universal dice.
And sagacity? Well, maybe Horace Walpole was onto something there. Maybe on some level we’re much wiser than we give ourselves credit for being.