Muhammad Ali and the TLS
BY DAVID HORSPOOL
As luck would have it, I missed the interview, but my wife told me there was a Cambridge Professor on the radio a few mornings ago discussing his new project of collecting coincidences. Here's one for him: Muhammad Ali and the TLS share a birthday. The TLS began life exactly 110 years ago, on January 17 1902, with the fateful announcement that "During the Parliamentary Session LITERARY SUPPLEMENTS to "THE TIMES" will appear as often as may be necessary in order to keep abreast with the more important publications of the day".
Forty years later, on January 17, 1942 (coincidentally, a Friday, hence a TLS day, as in 1902), Cassius Clay was born in Louisville Kentucky. The TLS was understandably concentrating on "important publications" on the only subject of note, the War.
Now you may say that this is hardly a coincidence, plenty of famous people must have been born on January 17 (and so they were: Clyde Walcott, Eartha Kitt, Rock Hudson), but here's the spooky part. I am, among other things, the commissioning editor for Sport on the TLS, and have always taken a great (and yes, unenlightened) interest in boxing in general and Ali in particular. So I was very pleased when my brother kindly promised to buy as a birthday present a print by the great Sunday Times and Observer sports photographer Chris Smith, of Ali, from an exhibition he had happened upon. I was lucky enough to meet the photographer and the gallerist (who -- coincidentally -- owns a sandwich shop near the TLS office which supplies our Editor with his lunch every day) and chose a photograph, which would need to be printed up for me.
And when did I get the call to say the print (not shown above) was ready? Today, on Ali's birthday, which fact neither Mr Smith nor the gallerist had noticed (in case you think they were trying to give me a special service).
The final piece of the jigsaw occurred to me only after I looked again at the photograph I had chosen as my birthday present. I was born on January 7 1971 (two days after Ali's first great defeated opponent, Sonny Liston, was found dead in Las Vegas), and quite by chance the photograph I had picked showed Ali training for his first comeback fight, the "Fight of the Century" against Joe Frazier -- in January 1971.
Now as any Cambridge Professor could tell you, none of this means anything, but I wonder whether such exact fits, near misses, or odd chimes are one way that we identify with things with which we might otherwise feel little connection. Or else they merely reinforce the sense that we are deeply connected to something for which we already feel some affinity.
I didn't think that anything could make the production of Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem, which I was lucky enough to squeeze in to last Friday, strike me more powerfully as it reached its climax. That was before one of the characters put on a record, and the theatre filled with the sound of Sandy Denny singing "Who Knows Where the Time Goes", a song I had just finished listening to on my MP3 player moments before I entered the theatre. Sandy Denny was in Fairport Convention, whose album Unhalfbricking has on its cover a photograph of the group outside Denny's parents' house. You can see the church spire. I recognized it recently. It was the church at the end of my street when I was a boy in Wimbledon. Is someone trying to tell me something?