I met an old friend last week. We’ve known each other since September 1981, and have stayed in touch. We were embarking on a project, to visit every Wren church in the Square Mile, one by one, meeting as and when we can. No hurry. It was an excuse to meet, to walk the streets we knew well, to take time to smell the roses.
I had been a fan of Wren’s for a long time, probably since my first visit to St Paul’s, early in 1981. Working in and around the City meant you were never particularly far from a Wren church. When I moved to Windsor later that decade, I was entranced by the (possibly mythical) story of the pillars under Windsor’s Guildhall.
Legend has it that Wren was asked to design the Guildhall. The powers-that-be rejected his submission; in their opinion the main room would not be safe without the addition of four central pillars. He gently reminded them who the expert was. They didn’t budge. So he relented. Sort of. He put the pillars in. Six inches short. Job done. Legend or not, I love the story. (If it was true, then it’s a classic They Would Say That, Wouldn’t They? opportunity which the councillors of the day wouldn’t have wasted).
While on the subject of noticing, and enjoying, little foibles left by architects, my walk around some of the churches led me to Philpot Lane. A regular haunt of mine when I worked, between 1999 and 2006, at 20 Fenchurch St, at the erstwhile headquarters of Dresdner Kleinwort, long since demolished and replaced by the Walkie Talkie. When I worked there, I used to meet friends and colleagues every day at the coffee shop that graced the corner of Eastcheap and Philpot Lane. It started off as a non-chain place, but became a Caffe Nero and stayed that way for many years. I think I must have been going there for over a year before I saw the Philpot Mice:
I love walking, and often enjoy walking for walking’s sake; wherever I go, part of my joy comes from observing what’s around me, what I would otherwise fail to notice.
Anyway, where was I? Walking down Philpot Lane and on to Eastcheap with a friend. We walked around the City for a couple of hours that morning, ending at St Mary-Le-Bow. And then we bade our goodbyes and headed our separate ways.
When I got to Bank Station, the Waterloo and City Line was no longer running, even though it was barely midday Friday. “Planned closure”. So I walked back up the stairs, hailed a cab to Waterloo. Got there, picked up a cup of tea for the journey home, boarded my train. As we pulled out, I went to check my phone to see what was happening at the cricket.
Oops. No phone.
So I retraced my steps in my mind while waiting to get off at the next station, Vauxhall. When did I last know I had the phone with me? In the taxi: I called my wife from there. I left the taxi, picked up the tea, boarded the train. So if it wasn’t on the train with me, I must have left it in the coffee shop (Pure something) at Waterloo, or in the taxi.
Jumped off at Vauxhall, ran down the stairs, checked where the next Waterloo-bound train was scheduled to arrive, ran up the stairs, boarded the train, got back to Waterloo. (Incidentally that’s a loose use of the word “run”, it was closer to amble along gently only ever-slightly faster than if I had walked).
Back at Waterloo. Went to Pure. The staff said no, we haven’t seen your phone, and no one has handed one in either. Hmmm. Then…
First, the gentleman behind me tapped me on the shoulder. Do you want to use my phone to call yours? So I did.
Then, after a number of rings, someone picked up. Yes, mate, I’ve got your phone, where are you now? Back at Waterloo. Right, I’m just off the King’s Road, I’ll come by there in 15-20 minutes, just wait for me where I dropped you.
Then, the woman serving at Pure said, you look like you could use a cup of tea, you take it black don’t you, here it is.
Twenty minutes later, I’d been reunited with my phone, refreshed and reinvigorated by a perfectly-timed cuppa, and set off again on my journey home.
Three people. Three people I’d never seen before, much less met or known. Three people who offered their help unasked. Three people who did their simple acts of kindness without any expectation of any reward or return whatsoever.
Three people who chose to help a stranger. Because they thought it was the right thing to do.
The kindness and trust of strangers. A thing of beauty. A joy forever.
Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about trustless systems and processes, designed and built to disintermediate the institutions that brokered trust. Many of these rely on software and hardware to do so.
Occasionally the software won’t work. Occasionally the hardware will fail. Occasionally the network will be down.
And there’ll be a person there. Who could just say I’m sorry, the system’s down. My computer’s crashed. It won’t connect.
The computer says no. By default.
As Picasso is meant to have said, computers are useless. They can only give you answers.
Time for a little detour. Have you heard of Erwin Chargaff? He was instrumental in figuring out nucleic acid, a key prerequisite to everything we’ve learnt about genetics in modern times. A good friend and mentor, Yossi, told me a story about Chargaff. I’ve found a version of that story in a 1993 issue of the New Scientist:
The most surprising denial of uniqueness was provided by the biochemist Erwin Chargaff, whose discovery of the pairing of bases played an important part in Watson’s story. Chargaff put forward the idea that there could not have been anything unique about Watson and Crick’s contribution, because ‘ . . . it is not the men who make science, it is science that makes the men. What A does today, B and C and D could surely do tomorrow.’
According to Chargaff, this is not the case for those who make art: ‘Timon of Athens could not have been written, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon could not have been painted, had Shakespeare and Picasso not existed.’New Scientist, 23 April 1993: DNA’s stroke of genius: Gunther Stent
As we meander towards a “trustless” age, let us keep an eye on the kindness of strangers. What people do when the systems are down, when the software crashes, when there is no connection. When the computer that can only give you answers isn’t able to give you an answer.
When a stranger has to decide whether to walk that extra mile for another stranger.
Trust implies uncertainty, vulnerability. Humans are able to make decisions to trust strangers because they can. Every day, humans do make decisions to trust strangers because they feel it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes they’re wrong to do so. Sometimes they’re not.
Uncertain, vulnerable. Willing to treat other humans with respect and with dignity. The computer might not be able to say anything, but I can.
When I was at school, one of my favourite poems was William Butler Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.
One particular stanza haunted me, intrigued me, delighted me:
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;William Butler Yeats, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
A lonely impulse of delight. The kindness — and trust — of strangers.