Guest Column: On the humbling nature of coincidence

"Rumpole, your nose is always buried in The Times at breakfast time," I heard Hilda’s scolding voice say on the car radio. And the usual bored, irritated response from her husband, Horace: “I’m reading the obituary of Cole Porter,” he managed to grind out. “Well, I’m reading something in the Daily Telegraph much more interesting than dead American songwriters,” Hilda responded. (I’m paraphrasing, but this is the gist).

For the hundredth time I wondered how Rumpole, brilliant lawyer, wit and scourge of the pretentious and cretinous, could have married such a combination of harpy and ignoramus. (A naive question. John Mortimer created her so Horace could pour scorn on someone so unremittingly unappetizing that all our sympathies would be with him — and by implication Mortimer himself. All writers have little tricks to put themselves in favorable light: That's why we write).

I also wondered for the thousandth time about coincidence. I never listen to the radio and yet here I was in England, having just switched on to hear the latest news on the Crimea (there wasn’t any) and there were Mortimer’s iconic characters — people who never existed — discussing me. Or, rather, pointedly ignoring me. Yes, me.

You see, I had written Cole Porter’s obituary for the edition of the London Daily Telegraph that Hilda was holding in her hand. It was another of life’s blows to my self-esteem to learn that it never occurred to either of them that the article that I had labored over so painstakingly, and of which I was secretly so proud, was worth even a glance. He disdained the Telegraph, she disdained the obituaries in it.

It is possible, of course, the Fates had guided me to that program as a reminder that, as Robert Burns has shown, how far we all are from seeing ourselves as others see us. The fact that Burns chose a louse to illustrate this human failing didn’t help.

But then again, as my oldest son, a PhD in physics, points out, “There are billions and billions of things happening all the time. Some of them are bound to match.” I agree with that. It’s the rational explanation.

Still, these matches are sometimes a little uncanny. I was in England on my way home from Italy, where I had given a series of talks to audiences ranging from professors of medicine to kindergartners about my 7-year old son, Nicholas, who was shot in a carjacking almost 20 years ago in Italy and who became an iconic figure himself when we donated his organs to seven Italians.

One evening in Brindisi I was having dinner with two friends, Luigi and Teresa, when her cellphone rang. It was her brother. “I’m with Luigi and a visitor from the United States, Reg Green,” she told him.

There was a slight pause, then he replied, “Please tell him I was one of the crew of the Italian air force plane that took Nicholas’ body home to America.”


REG GREEN lives in La Cañada. His website is

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