Simon Kelner: Coincidence: what are the chances of it happening?

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The Independent Online

The other morning, I was listening to a Professor Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University talking about the nature of coincidence. He explained that he was collecting people's stories about those bizarre incidents to which the only response would be: what are the chances of that happening?

"It is not a formal research study," said Prof Spiegelhalter, who holds the grand title of Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk. It is more a project aimed to help assess the likelihood of a sequence of events taking place. The professor revealed some of the more spectacular coincidences he has catalogued, like a person having the same birthday as a parent and a grandparent (35,000 to 1 are the odds on this one, by the way), or someone talking about Derek Jacobi and then seeing Derek Jacobi in the street (I shouldn't think there's particularly high odds on this: I can't stop bumping into the man who many think of as a great Shakespearian actor, but some will remember most vividly from a brilliant cameo in Frasier).

Anyway, the point of recalling all this is that, yesterday morning, I had one of those remarkable confluences of events. There I was reading the papers, and I was in the midst of a very ill-tempered, and highly entertaining, piece by Max Hastings about how he was plucked from the audience and made fun of by James Corden in the acclaimed stage show, One Man, Two Guvnors. (I know it doesn't seem like the sort of entertainment to which Sir Max would naturally be drawn, but we'll let that pass.)

As I was reading Max's line, "I felt a surge of awareness that while my 6ft 5in were ideally attired for escorting a spaniel and a labrador around West Berkshire, I seemed a tad incongruous on the stage of the Adelphi", a package was placed on my desk. It felt like someone had sent me a house brick, but in fact it was a gift from a former employer of mine, someone I'd not heard from for more than a year. He'd kindly sent me a book. It was All Hell Let Loose, a history of the Second World War, by – you've guessed it – Max Hastings. And to compound the coincidence, the previous night a good friend of mine had showed me the reading material he was taking with him on holiday. Yes, Max's book.

Now, I know it's not like meeting someone at random and finding out they used to live in the same house as you, but I think it's up there in the league table of coincidences. I have always regarded Max as one of my journalistic heroes, and anyone who can move effortlessly between a hilarious account of his excruciating appearance on the West End stage and a tirelessly researched study of what he calls "the greatest and most terrible event in history" clearly deserves his place in the pantheon.

Max wasn't exactly trending on Twitter yesterday, but a number of people tweeted about how much they'd have loved to have seen the military historian as Corden's straight man. I was going to see this play myself, but, apparently, there's a 1 in 1,500 chance that I, too, might be plucked from the audience. That's just not long enough odds for me.