Luck: A Personal Account of Fortune, Chance and Risk in Thirteen Investigations by David Flusfeder; Big Snake Little Snake: An Inquiry into Risk by DBC Pierre - review by Tim Smith-Laing

Tim Smith-Laing

What Are the Odds?

Luck: A Personal Account of Fortune, Chance and Risk in Thirteen Investigations

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Big Snake Little Snake: An Inquiry into Risk

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Everybody has a luck story. The ones we tend to tell are the good-luck tales, for the simple reason that we can make so much hang on them. The worst form of bad luck is unexpected death; the best form of good luck is unexpected survival. The former serves as a full stop; the latter renders all that follows it, no matter how mundane, numinously improbable and extraordinary. If it weren’t for X, I wouldn’t be here today, shopping in a Tesco Metro. My own version of this would be the train of events that brought my French-Jewish grandmother and my Scottish grandfather into each other’s orbits on the deck of a neutral Swedish ship in 1944 – she escaping from occupied France to America, he being repatriated to Britain after losing an arm during the invasion of Sicily. Extraordinary that either of them should have survived the war; extraordinary that they should intersect as they did; extraordinary that I should be sitting here typing these words.

David Flusfeder’s luck story is his father’s survival as a Jewish Pole in the Second World War, against odds ‘so steep as to make it statistically negligible’. Joe Flusfeder lived through the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, then was sent to a Siberian gulag before managing to make his way to the Battle of Monte Cassino, which he somehow also survived. All of these survivals, remarkable enough on their own, Joe traced to a single moment of blind chance in a Warsaw square one day in 1939. There was, he told his son, ‘only one moral’ to take: ‘I was lucky.’ Without that, no Joe, and no David Flusfeder either. The same claim, more or less, is what DBC Pierre makes for his own presence on Earth today. His moment of luck came at the age of four, when he ‘featured alongside an Eastern Brown Snake’ on the cellar stairs of his childhood home and lived to tell the tale. This is a case of what Pierre terms ‘vivid maths’: long odds of the snake being there in the first place; short odds of him surviving the meeting.

Both Joe Flusfeder’s and Pierre’s near misses point up something crucial about luck. It is, by definition, personal. Luck is what comes into being when random (or at the least complexly contingent) processes intersect with our needs or desires. Without us betting on it, a pair of dice

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