The Web and serendipity

I like walking. I walk a lot. Comes from only having lived in cities and never learning to drive.

When I walk, I have different modes. Sometimes I invite companions. Sometimes I choose to walk through crowds. Most of the time my walks are solitary and through sparsely populated areas, with start and end points known and only a rough direction of travel established. I put myself on autopilot and cruise control, engage just enough brain to be aware of my surroundings and other pavement and road users, and then I walk. Thinking of nothing in particular, but thinking nevertheless. Stopping occasionally to admire something; or to jot down a note to myself; or even to take a photograph. Meandering, almost purposeless, yet with clear intent to get somewhere. Just not particularly concerned about the when and the how.

A few weeks ago, I was doing my solitary-through-crowds bit from Liverpool Street to Paddington, something I do often. Somewhere off Holborn Circus I heard a snatch of a song from my youth. Yellow River. Christie. 1970.

I was 12 again. Standing by the window in my parents’ bedroom on the fourth floor of 6/2 Moira Street, Calcutta. Listening to the family Brunswick valve radio, looked a bit like the Telefunken here:

Remembering times spent happily daydreaming, looking out of the east-facing windows down on to the house next door. Big, detached, in a large plot, with gardens on all sides. Not a block of flats. Not a bungalow. Not something humongous either. Quite different from anything else I’d seen.

I could see the house in my mind. Hazily, yet clearly. It was demolished soon after, and they spent years building some monstrosity there. I can remember nothing about the monstrosity.

So I walked on towards Paddington, thinking about that house, the neighbours I didn’t really get to know, the dogs I couldn’t recall any details of, the cars that loomed in forgotten memory.

And then. The very next day. I found a set of photographs of that demolished house. For sale. Via online auction.

I bought them.

That’s the view I remember. And now, for a pittance, I’ve been able to refresh that memory.

How serendipitous. How serendipitous indeed. After all, all it needed was for someone to take the photographs, to look after them for six or seven decades, to transport them across a few continents, to annotate them carefully, and to put them up for auction. All it needed was for the auctioneer to ensure that the lot was labelled accurately and made available online. All it needed was for a search engine specialising in auctions to find and list that lot. All it needed was for the lot to have the right metadata and keywords, and for the search engine to pick them up. All it needed was for one of those terms to be present in my saved alerts.

Serendipitous indeed. While Gary Player wasn’t the first to talk about the correlation between hard work and luck, he remains the most memorable.

We are still only beginning to appreciate the sheer joy of the internet and the web, of being able to get to things we could only dream of getting to.

Or sometimes daydream about getting to.