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Chance would be a fine thing

James Cary


Despite being a writer by trade, I was not a reader growing up. I only read novels at gunpoint. I lived on a farm. There were guns. But despite my agricultural upbringing in Somerset, I never warmed to the works of Thomas Hardy. From my cursory skimming of the York Notes of Far From the Madding Crowd, one of many books my long suffering English teacher didn't get me to read, I gleaned that selfish Bathsheba thoughtlessly sent a Valentine's card to Boldwood (who, granted, sounds like a hobbit). He is ultimately crushed by the false hope of the card, his fate sealed by a chance decision. Not the toss of a coin, as it was a Sunday and that seemed bad luck. But the toss of a Bible.

The other English class at school were doing Tess of the d'Urbervilles. In that story, I believe a chance remark in passing sparks a catalogue of events that lead to the destruction of more lives. A chance remark. Chance? It's only now, over 20 years later and writing stories for a living, that I realise why I didn't like those books. It wasn't the lengthy prose that was the problem, but the sheer randomness of the tragedy that befell the characters of Wessex.

As a writer, I've learnt that chance events in stories are problematic. If you have to have some kind of coincidence, put it at the start. If you put it in the middle, or end with it, audiences really feel cheated. Why? Because it's not fair. It feels wrong in a story. The character doesn't deserve to be hit by a random car, win the lottery or get struck down with a rare disease - even though this is exactly how things work in real life. People are hit by cars, win lotteries and are diagnosed with rare diseases all the time, without doing anything to bring this fate upon themselves. And yet our God-given desire for justice expects and demands stories where there is no randomness and everything happens for a reason.

It should be no surprise then that our society hates randomness where it can be avoided, even when it might be perfectly justified. Ten or so years ago, the graduate medical degree at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry at St Bartholomew's operated a lottery system to cope with the sheer thousands of high quality entrants for a mere 40 places. So they set a difficult test, and of those who passed, a percentage were randomly selected for interview. Naturally, people detested this idea.

Dr John Fuller, who ran the entry programmes defended himself but also said on a BBC website 'no-one has yet been able to tell me how I distinguish the best future doctor between someone who has a doctorate in microbiology, a degree in anatomy, an engineer who works voluntarily in a nursing home and a nurse working in the NHS for a number of years.' He is saying there comes a point where setting tests and grading people on unproven potential is equally arbitrary.

As you can imagine, this didn't calm the storm caused by middle-class high flyers who had previously come top of every class they'd ever been in. Now they were victims of the system. There weren't in control and could lose out, purely on the roll of a dice. Being the best wasn't good enough.

The rejected candidates considered themselves bitterly unlucky, even though had overlooked the fact that they were already among the luckiest people in the world. Through no merit of their own, they had been born into a rich country at a peaceful time in history, received a good education, enjoyed good enough health to study medicine and were clearly destined to have a career that paid extremely well. Plenty of people have gifts for jobs that pay a fraction what a doctor earns. I write sitcoms. I'd earn 90% less with the equivalent talent in writing poetry. When BBC Three, which carries my sitcom Bluestone 42, has the plug pulled, I'll do well to remember that I am still very very lucky.

The parable of the rich young fool (the one who tears down his barn to build bigger ones) is told to a man who is pestering Jesus to talk to a brother who will not divide an inheritance - money that he did not earn. In the parable, Jesus says that the ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. The man just happens to own fertile ground. Lucky him. Jesus seemed much happier with the randomness of life than those around him.

Maybe I should dig out Far From the Madding Crowd. Or even better watch the new movie starring Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen that comes out this year. Now there's a bit of luck.