Gandhi in Hammersmith – and the serendipity shortage

Serendipity is the “…accidental discovery of something fortunate or pleasing”, and it is one of life’s great pleasures.

Examples of serendipity: a tenner found down the back of the sofa; a newly-opened cool spot that hasn’t drawn the crowds yet; the public toilet that looms into view just as you think you’re about to have A Diplomatic Incident (BTW there’s an app for that last one, and literally thousands of Londoners use it – Toiluxe).

Right now there’s a bit of a debate going on about serendipity. Some people are worried that we’re running out of serendipity, thanks to technology such as Amazon’s recommendation software, which supposedly makes for less accidental discovery in our lives.  In the blue corner, this guy:

“More and more of what I see, hear, read and even taste seems exceptionally cunningly targeted at me. My RSS feeds me handpicked news streams. I get perfect movie recommendations via Netflix, books I’ll enjoy via Amazon, uncannily relevant advertising when using Gmail, weirdly familiar music from Last fm. Satnav keeps me resolutely on the data-derived optimum track. And so on.

Well, these shifts are triggering a smoothing out in our experiences, prompting a reduction in serendipity…It’s becoming clear that ultra relevance comes with a hidden price. Because if everything’s relevant, then nothing’s unexpected, and if nothing’s unexpected, then nothing surprises you, and if nothing surprises you, then that’s a strange, neutralized, vanilla kind of life to lead. We’re talking about the end of surprise.” Ben Malbon

In the red corner: everyone else.

Really, modern life is full of serendipitous discovery. Five hundred years ago, the biggest surprise was waking up in the morning to find you’ve lived another day. Life was simple, hard and not terribly varied. Luckily our ancestors lived through all that so we don’t have to.

We are spoiled for choice. Technology is falling over itself to help us stumble upon new stuff. For example,  Blue Plaques uses dozens of orbiting GPS satellites to send serendipity your way, via your phone. To repeat: satellites helping us have fun. Not even King Louis IV had that.

And now the residents of the wonderful London borough of Hammersmith & Fulham can use their phone to make serendipitous discovery of their own: a plaque commemorating the former London home of Mahatmi Gandhi. That’s right: Gandhi once lived in Hammersmith. There’s a plaque dedicated to him at his old address just off the A4 road, in Barons’ Court Road (see big pic at end of post for exact location).

Gandhi’s former patch is home to the busiest road out of West London, a road that always has more than its share of roadworks and blocked lanes. At rush hour, the blockages require all the antsy motorists to change lanes and let each other into and out of queues, prompting much rage, pettiness, resentment and everything else that happens when two men have to help each other out in traffic. At 5.30pm, the beeping and seething on the A4 is intense. You can’t help thinking that a big roadside poster of local boy Gandhi – the man who stood for peace, tolerance and mutual understanding – would really take everyone out of themselves and raise the tone.

Conceivably, Gandhi would have witnessed the 1890s version of London traffic jams. Who knows what he made of them, or of Hammersmith in general, but we do know he had this to say about serendipity:

“Let everyone try and find that as a result of daily prayer he adds something new to his life, something with which nothing can be compared.”

There’s an app for that too. Blue Plaques for iPhone is available on the iPhone App Store.

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