Original script by NICK BROWNLEE
From the audio series “WELL WEIRD, WITH ADRIAN CLAYPOLE“
The 1998 film Sliding Doors asks us to consider a fascinating temporal conundrum: would Gwyneth Paltrow’s life have been different if she hadn’t missed her train on the London Underground?
(Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. In the timeline where she boards the train, Gwyneth Paltrow dies.)
But the Hollywood movie raises fundamental questions that have exercised the greatest of minds. Is there such a thing as an alternative reality? A parallel universe of the “What If?”
How different would our world be if the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs had missed the earth? If Judas had rejected the 30 pieces of silver? If John Lennon had never met Yoko Ono?
At this moment, is there an another you, smarter, richer and better looking, wondering if there is another him or her begging for small change on a street corner?
One day we may find out. But until then we can only accept the vicissitudes of fate, while all the time wrestling the eternal quandary: “What If”.
As a photographer with the world famous Magnum agency during the 1960s, Irish-born Terry Sharples was fortunate enough to be present at many of the pivotal moments of that turbulent decade.
In another life, he would have been feted as one of the most important chroniclers of his time, his name mentioned in the same breath as Don McCullin, Robert Capra, and Diane Arbus.
Unfortunately, in this life he remembered only as an absolute imbecile.
On November 22, 1963, Sharples was in position on the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza, Dallas awaiting the Presidential motorcade containing John F Kennedy. Moments before the fatal shots were fired from the Book Depository, however, Ethel and John Finkler, visiting from Illinois, asked if he would take their picture.
Sharples obliged, with the result that he missed the assassination. The so called “Finkler Shot” is estimated to have cost Magnum over $750bn in syndication fees alone – although the Finklers did pay Sharples five dollars for a copy of the photograph.
Dispatched in disgrace to Magnum’s remote Saigon bureau, Sharples was quickly presented with an opportunity to redeem himself when Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in protest at persecution by the South Vietnamese government.
Despite being informed of time and place of the event by Duc himself, Sharples took a wrong turn and became hopelessly lost in Saigon’s one-way system. By the time he arrived he was half an hour late and the iconic image had already been taken by photojournalist Malcolm W Browne, who happened to be passing.
Demoted to the post of darkroom assistant, Sharples admitted to friends that his career as a front-line photographer was over. However in 1968 he was offered one last chance at redemption when he was sent to Mexico as part of the agency’s team covering the Olympics.
Assigned to collect rolls of film from the photographers in the stadium, Sharples found himself by the podium just as the medal ceremony for the 200m was about to take place.
He recalled what happened next in a 1984 documentary about the Magnum agency:
“Don McCullin said he needed to use the lavvy and asked me if I’d take the shot of Tommie Smith getting his medal. His exact words as he walked away were: ‘Just get the shot, Terry – even you can’t fuck this one up’. Then Smith and John Carlos put on these black gloves and reached for the sky, and I’m thinking ‘Jesus, This is it!’ and I take the shot – the iconic black power shot. But of course I only had my finger over the frigging lens.”
This was one failure too many for Magnum, and Sharples was dismissed. A subsequent career as a wedding photographer ended in numerous law suits from disgruntled couples and he spent the rest of his working life as a tourist guide in his home town of Dishwipe, Co Mayo.
But while it could be argued that Trevor Sharples took the wrong course, albeit on a frighteningly consistent basis, there are also equally astonishing examples of people who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Arthur Coatbridge was a 17-year-old greengrocer’s assistant from Pontefract who stunned the English establishment by beating the then two-times champion Fred Perry in the 1936 Wimbledon’s Men’s tennis final.
This was despite never having picked up a racket in his life, and having been dropped on his head as a baby – an accident that left him a simpleton.
Yet Coatbridge’s astonishing achievement was never officially recognised – indeed all evidence of it was buried and his name airbrushed from history for more than 40 years, until a chance discovery in the BBC sound archives.
The 54-second fragment of radio commentary, by the late John Snagge, features the dramatic climax of the match in which Perry, serving to save his title, loses the point to a freakish Coatbridge backhand.
Rather than congratulate his opponent, however, the usually urbane Perry hits Coatbridge with his racket, causing a near riot on Centre Court.
Fearing a damaging scandal just months after the Abdication Crisis, the match, which was witnessed from the Royal Box by George VI and Queen Elizabeth, was immediately suppressed by the Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin in collaboration with the Lawn Tennis Club of Great Britain, the Press and the BBC.
Spectators who believed they had witnessed the greatest upset in Wimbledon history were assured that they hadn’t, and that in fact Perry had beaten the German Gottfried von Cramm in straight sets. The records were amended accordingly to give Perry his third successive Championship.
In reality von Cramm was indisposed with dysentery, contracted a month earlier during a Nazi-sponsored tour of the Belgian Congo. It was while hurrying to the toilet prior to the final that he met Arthur Coatbridge exiting one of the cubicles.
Shortly before his death in 1976, von Cramm told Stern magazine:
“I asked the Englander if he was a player. He said he was there to deliver strawberries. But I was desperate, so I just handed him my racket and wished him luck.”
Despite having never played the game, and wearing a flat cap and hobnailed boots, Coatbridge defeated an off-form Perry 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. After the match, however, he was arrested on suspicion of being a communist sympathiser and detained at Wandsworth Prison until 1952.
Arthur Coatbridge, who has died aged 94, never spoke of his experience, even after the discovery of the Snagge commentary and the resulting media furore.
Upon his release from prison he returned to his native Yorkshire where he continued to work in the local greengrocer’s. It was generally assumed by his family that he had been murdered in London – indeed many of his closest relatives admitted they were disappointed that he hadn’t.
Terry Sharples and Arthur Coatbridge. Two men whose lives and fortunes could have taken wildly diverging paths had circumstances, or fate, dictated otherwise.
Yet the truth is, despite what Hollywood would have us believe, and whatever advances we as a species may make in science and technology, we cannot choose our own path.
Fate cannot be dictated to. All we can hope is that it smiles on us.
While all the time listening for the sound of hollow laughter…