Catchphrases · Notes from West London · Reading

February’s “Coincidence Corner”

Back in December I wrote that “What a coincidence” is one of our catchphrases, and why, and in January (“Porlock”) wrote that themes, stories or references will recur if you keep your eyes and ears open, and keep on reading, and watching, and listening. They’re not really coincidences. You won’t know what they are in advance but you’ll find them.

Earlier this week I wrote about David Lodge’s “Changing Places”, about digging out the book to look for a quote, and I managed to read it all the way through again, nearly 35 years after first reading it. It features a character called Philip Swallow. Desiree Zapp calls him Sparrow when they first meet, but corrects herself, and says that a swallow is a nicer bird. Two days later, having been told by a teacher that Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” is a beautiful story for children, and coming across it while looking for something else, I read it (all 11 pages of it). That Puffin book of short stories has been with me since childhood; I’d never opened it before. The bird that flies around the statue of the Happy Prince is a swallow. Coincidence? Hardly, but I can’t recall reading anything about swallows over the last year, and there it is twice in a three days, in completely unrelated books. It happens.

Up to 2013 I had read every Booker Prize winner, but there have been no book binges for me since then, and the last three winners (“The Luminaries”, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” and “A Brief History of Six Killings”) sit unread on my real and virtual bookshelves. I picked up the second of them this week and have spent one of the seven or more hours it will take me to read it. Before picking up the book I listened to Leo Green’s “Great American Songbook”, about Johnny Mercer, on the iPlayer (available until the beginning of March 2016 here but you’ll be able to read the track-listing after that). The last song on the show was Aretha Franklin singing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive”, a song I haven’t heard for many months. Within an hour I was reading the words to the song in Richard Flanagan’s book, there on page 43 of my hardback edition, as sung by “the mountain lion” Kenji Mogami, crooning like Bing Crosby.

Flanagan’s book also mentions Cairo, which is where the swallow in “The Happy Prince” was planning to fly to. Again, not much of a coincidence, but I find it interesting to see what shared references appear in completely unrelated texts. In fact I’m surprised that no words or phrases leapt out at me while I was reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” to my son at bedtime this week. (It was even more effective at sending him to sleep, two nights out of the last three, than anything set in Narnia.) Nothing comes to mind that has featured in anything else that I’ve seen or read recently, but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open.

I have come across the word “palimpsest” three times in the last month or so (most recently in “Changing Places”). If it passed my eyes or ears in the previous five years I didn’t notice. I’m saving it for next week’s “Word of the Week”.

Postscript, four hours later

I’ve just read another 70 pages of “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” and found a shared reference with “Changing Places”. They both mention the song “These Foolish Things”. In Lodge’s book Philip Swallow hears a Muzak version of it on the plane taking him to America (it’s on page 29 of my Penguin paperback edition) and in Flanagan’s book Amy puts the record on at the hotel in Adelaide (page 106 of my Chatto & Windus hardback copy). And Flanagan quotes lines that I mentioned last month, at the end of my first listicle, about songs that rhyme heart with part or apart: “A tinkling piano in the next apartment / Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant”.

Another postscript, twelve more hours later

It’s just come to me, a word that’s in both “Changing Places” and “The Old Man and the Sea”, a word that I hadn’t come across for many, many months, and a word that I really didn’t want to read out loud: “Negro”, used to describe some of the students in Lodge’s book, and the man that Santiago arm-wrestled, in a flashback in Hemingway’s book. It’s not a word that I’ll be introducing into my vocabulary, but “These Foolish Things” will be on my mind this weekend and I’m be looking out for the word palimpsest before writing about it on next week.

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