Friday, July 06, 2012

The Force was with him


In his autobiography (Blessings in Disguise, 34-35), Alex Guinness claims he had a premonition of James Dean’s demise. There used to be a snippet of an interview on YouTube in which he recounted the same story.

And here’s another anecdote:

The next story is also one of a disaster averted–in less dramatic and more tortuous ways. It was told by Sir Alec Guinness during a luncheon with mutual friends; he then kindly put it down in writing at my request:

Saturday July 3rd 1971 was, for me, a quiet day of rehearsals ending with dinner with a friend and going to bed at 11:30 PM. Before going to bed I set my two alarm clocks to wake me at 7:20 AM. When working in London at a weekend it has been my habit to get up at 7:20 on the Sunday morning and leave my flat at 7:45 for the short walk to Westminster Cathedral for Mass at 8:00. (I have been a Catholic, of a sort, for about sixteen years.) On returning from Mass I would have a quick light breakfast and catch the 9:50 Portsmouth train, from Waterloo, to my home near Petersfield. On this particular night I remember I didn’t sleep a great deal as I constantly woke up–perhaps each hour–with a tremendous sense of well-being and happiness, for no reason that I can put my finger one. 
By habit and instinct I am a very punctual riser in the morning, and usually wake up two or three minutes before the alarm clock rings. On this particular morning I woke, glanced in the half light at the clock and thought “My God, I’ve overslept!” It appeared to me the clock said 7:40 (I didn’t refer to the second clock). I rushed through washing and so on and hurried to the Cathedral. Very unexpectedly–in fact it had never happened before–I found a taxi at that early hour, so I thought I was at the Cathedral at 7:55. With time to spare I went to confession. When Mass started I thought the attendance was considerably larger than usual for eight o’clock. It was only when what was obviously going to be a rather tedious sermon was underway that I glanced at my watch and realized I was at the 9:00 Mass instead of the 8:00. I went home as usual, saw that both my alarm clocks were correct and decided to catch the 10:50 train instead of the 9:50. (My wife was away in Ireland so it made no difference what train I caught.) When I arrived at Waterloo at 10:30 there was an announcement that all trains on the Portsmouth line were delayed for an unspecified amount of time. An enquiry gave me the information that the 9:50 train had been derailed a few miles outside London. Subsequently I found out that it was the front coach of the train which had toppled on its side and that, although no one was killed, or even grievously injured, the occupants of the coach had been badly bruised and taken to hospital. My habit, when catching the 9:50 on a Sunday morning, had been to sit in the front compartment of the front coach because, when in Waterloo station, that coach was in the open air, away from the roofing of Waterloo and consequently with more light for reading and less likelihood of being crowded.

In my reply to his letter I pointed out that he had not only overslept (by an hour and twenty minutes!) but had also misread the clock by an hour; had he not done so, he might have decided to skip mass and catch the ill-fated 9:50 train after all.

He wrote back that he also thought that his misreading the clock was the oddest thing about the story–“particularly as there were two clocks, almost side-by-side.”

Arthur Koestler, “Anecdotal Cases,” Alister Hardy, Robert Harvie, & Arthur Koestler, The Challenge of Chance (Random House 1974), 184-86.

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