Chapter 1 – Origins
One day in 1936, Kenneth Wing Jesty and Hetty Irene Burr decided to get married and raise a family. So far as I am concerned, not only was that the best decision they made in their lives, it was the best decision that anyone made in the twentieth century; although similar decisions made before 1900 by my four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on were equally important. In fact the story can be traced back through the common ancestors of human beings and chimpanzees and the common ancestor of those ancestors and gorillas and so on through orang-utans, gibbons, monkeys, other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, starfish, flatworms, jellyfish, sponges, fungi, green plants, seaweeds, slime moulds and microbes. Many kinds of animals, such as birds and insects, are not included in this list because they are on separate branches of the tree of life. I have read that the quarks that make up most of my body go back even further, and are known to have existed 10‑35 of a second after the creation of the Universe.
I was born on the 21st of June, 1942, three days after Paul McCartney and two days before Martin Rees, in Haymead’s Hospital, Bishop’s Stortford, which is five miles south of Ugley and nine miles east of Nasty. But that’s not the beginning of my story. I know that I learned to appreciate music before I was born because I have read about experiments in which people have compared the reactions of new-born babies to music that they had heard before they were born with music that they hadn’t heard before. In fact, my personality and my appearance had already been determined by the time I became a zygote in 1941. I was then about a tenth of a millimetre across, about the size of a grain of sand, and just big enough to be visible to the naked eye. Before that I was mostly an ovum. I was well into middle age when I discovered that I had been an ovum since 1911. At that time it was already determined that if I reached maturity I would become a human being, but it was not yet determined what sort of person I would become or even whether I would be male or female.
In 1994 I tried to work out the odds against my having been born. In the past six hundred years I have had about a million ancestors. If the odds against two people meeting and deciding to have children are ten to one then the odds against a million couples meeting are ten raised to the power of a million to one. I found it impossible to believe that I had had that amount of good luck before I was born when I have had good and bad luck in roughly equal quantities ever since. I came to the bizarre conclusion that my existence cannot be just luck: it has to be inevitable. This is a philosophical point that turns science upside down and that, so far as I know, nobody else has ever thought of.
In fact the odds against two people meeting are much greater than ten to one. My mother’s family came from the Bishop’s Stortford area; my father’s family came from the Yeovil area. What is the likelihood that both families would move to Walthamstow and that my parents would both belong to the same tennis club?
Supposing that my existence is the only inevitable thing. Then not only could I have been any one of the hundred billion people who have ever lived, but I could have been born into any conceivable type of universe. It might have been a universe that only lasted for a few seconds; it might have been a universe in which nothing existed except myself: it would still have been a miracle. So it is an even bigger miracle that I have lived for more than seventy years and been able to see and hear and find out about a universe that is enormously interesting and complex.
I could regard my own existence as luck and the nature of the universe as inevitable, or I could regard my existence as inevitable and the nature of the universe as luck; either way I have been extremely lucky.
Supposing the day I was born my mother had had twins. One of those twins would have been me. The other would not have been me. Now suppose that she only had one child. It might have been me that was born and my twin that was not born, or it might have been my twin that was born and me that was not born. It is therefore possible that my mother could have given birth to a child who looked exactly like me and had my personality, but who still wasn’t me. This lengthens the odds against my being born even further.
A question I sometimes ask myself is this: if I had never been born, would I have been someone else? This leads to another interesting question: what do I mean by ‘I’ in this context? The implication is that I have always existed and always will do, which is nonsense.
My father was born in 1906 and my mother in 1911. My brother Jonathan was born in 1938 and my sister Amanda in 1945. My sister worked at various times for the B.B.C., the Bank of England, the World Council of Churches, the World University Service, the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation. My brother spent most of his working life in the insurance business. He must have been successful in his field, for he talked on the subject on Radio London and on You and Yours on Radio 4. My father was the accountant, chief accountant or director of accounts of the British Council for thirty-three years, and he did his job so well he was awarded the M.B.E. He told me that he could have been the accountant for the National Trust, but they only offered him five pounds a week, whereas the British Council offered him five guineas a week. My brother-in-law Roger spent most of his working life in the United Nations. When I first met him in 1966 he was the editor of the magazine WUS in Action, which had a circulation of 10,000. When I met him again in 2014 he was the president of an association of former United Nations employees with 20,000 members. My nephew Martin was at one time the Develpment Manager of the Academy of Writing.
I acquired the name ‘Christopher’ from a friend of the family who died at about the time I was born. We inherited from him a leather suitcase that remained in the family until 1993, when it was left out in the rain and ruined. The name was first shortened to ‘Chris’ when I started going to the Scouts in 1956. When I was very young my brother called me ‘Fer’, which was short for ‘Christopher’, then ‘Ferman’ and ‘Freddie Ferman’ and ‘Finkle Fuffer Freddie Ferman’. Then it was shortened to ‘Finkle Fuffer’ and ‘Finkle’ and finally to ‘Tink’. When I worked for Abacus Taxis in 1990 we used our Christian names as call-signs, but as there were four drivers called ‘Chris’. I was told that I would have to be ‘Lionel’. I couldn’t imagine myself as a Lionel, so I said that I would be ‘Tink’. I then became known to the other drivers by that name. I later came across the name ‘Finkle Fuffer’ in the credits of a film, and concluded that that was where it came from.