The Black Swan Dinner

In October 2013 I curated a dinner event at Rhubaba Gallery in Edinburgh.

The evening consisted of a series of interviews and presentations around chance, luck and low-probability high-impact events known as Black Swans.

We spoke to invited guests such as Helen Limon, who has survived a plane crash, and Will Evans who survived a knife attack by a man with severe mental health issues. We presented interviews with Rachel Krische who has been struck by lightning, and Stuart Bell, who has been struck by lightning, hit by a car, and broken 13 bones.

We also heard from Will Donovan, a mathematician at Edinburgh University who spoke about statistical probability, Adam Moore, a psychologist at Edinburgh University who spoke about the way humans understand probability and John Amoore, Head of Medical Physics at two hospitals who talked about about "never events" and how an understanding of low-probability events informs decisions made in the NHS.


Below are some pictures from the event, and below those are transcriptions of the interviews with Rachel and Stuart.



Interview between Rachel Krische (R) and Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau (M)

M: Could you tell me in as much detail as you remember about the day of the lightning strike.

R: Well, we're talking about 1999, so that's almost 15 years ago. I can't remember much of the day, but the kind of build up to it was that a really close friend of mine just got back from LA, and he'd just got back the day before. And he'd been in LA for three months and he hadn't seen a single cloud, not even a little whispy, cotton wool puff.

Anyway, and he popped round to see me and it started like, this thunderstorm started up and he went “oooh let's go out in it” and I went “yeah let's go out in the thunderstorm, let's do it”. I was living on the edge of Clapham Common at that time, like literally, walk out the front door and there it was. And I can't remember anything else about that day but he came round, we decided to go out and enjoy the beautiful storm and the rain and I took.... I mean I laugh at myself now, but stupidly I carried an umbrella with a metal arm [laughs] so...

And it was one of those summery storms, so I had Birkenstocks on and probably a very light jacket, and I was carrying a little umbrella, and I was walking ahead of him going “ooohh, how lovely lovely”. And all of a sudden there was – the thunder and the lightning happened at the same time, and so what happened next was that it felt like time really slowed down. I can imagine that what really happened, all happened within a split second, but it felt like...


Sometimes when I've read up about the brain, of course it's not time slowing down, but it's the brain – so many layers of information are being accumulated in the brain that it feels like time starts stretching.

I'll get up and demonstrate.

[gets up]

Ok, there we go. So I'm like this and what's important is that I'm really holding my arm at a big angle. Like, at my elbow, because it went: Flash. Sound – and then I went “ahh isn't there meant to be a gap?”, and I looked across to the metal arm of the umbrella and a mini bolt of lightning was travelling down it like this, but like in a

[does movement and noise of it slowly travelling down the umbrella arm]

Like in slow mo, and at that point I thought “oh my god am I going to be hit by lightning?” and then I went like this [acts out convulsions, sort of coming from the umbrella], and then it stopped.

And then I thought, “fuck did I just get hit by lightning”, and I remember looking at my feet and thinking, logically, if I really had been hit by lightning I would have been thrown or something, but I was still standing, so I thought “ooohhh, don't be silly of course I haven't”, and I turned around and looked at my best friend, and he was on his knees just in shock, behind me. And he said that underneath the umbrella it had just lit up, like “whoosh”.

I think what actually happened was because I was holding my arm at such an acute angle I think that the lightning travelled through my arm and shot out my elbow.
I didn't feel it in my body, but the power of the bolt going through my arm was like someone grabbing my arm and shaking me, so I think that's why my whole body shook was actually cos my arm was shaken so much that it shook everything else. So I think it shot out my elbow and earthed itself in the grass behind me really quickly.
And then we just started pissing ourselves laughing, just... and we laughed for about six hours, every time we looked at each other, we were just laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing.

And he said the really weird thing that happened before was that I was, I don't know, six steps ahead of him, I'd just marched off with great enthusiasm. And before the lightning struck, this thought flashed through his brain, “God I wonder what would happen if Rachel got hit by lightning?”, and then it went DOOSH, BOOF like that and I got hit by lightning.

M: Did you have a wound?

In the crook of my elbow, there was a circle of skin there that was red, like a little when your skin blushes, not a scab or anything just a little red circle. And a whopping headache, but I wonder if that was just cos I was laughing for so many hours – I'm not sure.

And obviously I went and bought a lottery ticket the next day. It happened on a Tuesday, and the next day I went and bought a lottery ticket and I didn't win

So that was it. Obviously since that time I don't go out in a rainstorm with a metal umbrella anymore, cos that was a really stupid idea. And, that's that.

I think two nights later there was another thunderstorm in the middle of the night and I woke up, and I was all like, in this magical place of storms and I was like, “oooh, look at the lightning?”. I was lodging with a family friend, so in the middle of the night she found me, I was wandering through the apartment and I'd climbed into the windowsill and I was looking at the lightning, and then she walked in and it must have been three in the morning and I was like stark naked. So she was quite amused by that obviously.

I don't go out seeking lightning, and similarly when there's a thunderstorm I tend to avoid it, I don't want to tempt fate.

M: But you're not a superstitious person in general?

R: pffft, well, mildly superstitious.... my husband's throwing me a look. Maybe a little bit, I'm of that age

M: What do you mean?

R:  Well, I think people younger than me are less superstitious, but maybe that's me.

I touch wood, but it's like, not super serious, and I don't mind little superstitions, like you enjoy any type of folk stories or folk rituals. I think it's nice to think of those things cos you know...

Sometimes I have superstitions that are connected to my parents because they had that superstition. Also that's a little link for me to have with them.

M: So what are the superstitions connected with your parents?

R: Off the top of my head, I remember walking into town with my mum when I was 10 or something and we walked over the footbridge and there was a  glove on the floor and we picked it up and she said, “that's very lucky, it means you'll receive a gift”, and we placed it on a railing or whatever, and then I find out that some people think it's really bad luck to find one glove on the floor. So, either way I don't walk under ladders, but I don't want a bucket of water dropped on my head!

M: Is this the most unlikely thing that's ever happened to you?

R: ooh, [pause] [laughs] I don't know? Being born? Becoming a dancer? I don't know? Living in Yorkshire? [laughs]

I mean, I've been hit by a car once, but was totally fine and that reminds me - my father - I suppose I always remember him talking to me about this because I was very close to my father, and he had some really close shaves in his life. He was born in 1920 so he lived through the whole of world war two and various things. He spoke about several near death experiences that he had, including when he was a kid – he grew up in rural Slovenia- and he was out riding and then suddenly the horse went ...

[makes braking/skidding noise]

...sort of put on the brakes and he flew over the top of the horses head and held on to the reigns, and he was dangling over a cliff, and he managed to talk the horse into reversing and drag him back onto the cliff edge.

During combat in World War Two, he said he ran from three trenches, and one after the other, each trench got bombed just as he left it. My father always believed he had a guardian angel, always. Like it was absolute fact, even though he wasn't massively religious. I never saw him in church ever, only photos of his wedding and my mother's funeral. But he did believe in god and he absolutely believed in his guardian angel. And also, this is another... hmmm, I wouldn't call it superstitious... But I suppose it's a sense I carry with me, because I'm a lone twin – I had a twin that miscarried. And I always, for a lot of my life, always felt like... When I've lived in dodgy areas in dodgy cities – like I lived in New York for a bit and in London, late at night, dark streets. I'm not an idiot, I'm streetwise – but I've always felt a certain confidence in being out and about on my own because I've always felt like I've had my guardian, my twin with me.

[background, husband says “what about that premonition?”]

Yeah, one time I had this weird premonition. I was walking down this dark street that one side was houses and the other side was the wall of a bus depot, and I just saw this light go on at the end and I thought “hmmm, this isn't right. A guy's going to step out” and sure enough, this guy stepped out from the street and stopped and stood, waiting for me to get to him. And I knew it wasn't right, and so I just ran and as I passed him he leaned into me to push me, and I pushed him and took off the other way...

I am very practical and pragmatic, but I don't ignore my intuition and I think there's value, even creative value in listening to something that you sense or feel even if... I don't care if it's codswallop, I like listening to it, and I can trust my intuition at certain times if I can sense something... Though I didn't sense the bloody lightning. So it doesn't work all the time, but do you know what I mean? I'm not weird or “wooooohohhh”

M:  So, do you think you get the guardian angel thing from your dad?

R: Slightly, the guardian twin... I would never state that as a certainty either, I would always say that to me that's... in certain times in my life that's an aspect of the way I'm using my imagination, other times... To me, those thoughts are part of being creative about how you understand life. Because being here on this planet is kind of bonkers, and it's a bit meaningless. I mean, boof your born, doof you die and events happen to you, between thos two spots. And it doesn't need a meaning, I don't think, but I think you're creative imagination is really a part of being human that in this day and age isn't as respected as much as it could be, I think. Thoughts and beliefs are fluid. To me, nothing is black and white, it's kind of playing and shifting. I truly respect that other people believe in very different things, and those things are very real to them, and who am I to question what is real to others, and I think for me, having a guardian twin is like... nothing's taken away, that's like an added  thing for me to carry in my experience of being alive, whether it's true or not, who gives a shit.

I think it I find the meaning of it for myself – it's kind of beyond language because it's something else. You can experience these things like you experience art – they can be narratives, kinaesthetic experiences that enrich your life. But I can imagine – I'm lucky I don't suffer from delusions or things like that, if the brain starts confusing things from empirical reality then it's more difficult to manage, but I think it can be a really special space in your mind.


Interview between Stuart Bell (S) and Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau (M)

Intro: I met Stu through a guy called Jussi. I work with Jussi and Jussi knew Stu from the music scene. Jussi and Stu are both in quite heavy bands – though Stu has just quit his band.

Jussi had said that Stud had been stuck by lightning and been in a plane crash. When I spoke to him  on the phone to arrange the interview, Stu had said that he couldn't say too much about the plane crash because of an ongoing legal dispute with the airline, but also alluded to a much wider set of coincidental events in his life.

M: So, could you tell me, in as much detail as you remember, about the day when you were struck by lightning?

S: I was brought up in Spain, I lived in Spain, Southern Spain where it's very hot and very dry and pretty much every summer you get forest fires and – a lot of it is arson – but nine times out of ten, it's storms and lightning.

One day, me and my brother were up in the hills behind our house and it just started chucking it down with rain, pretty much just like in a film, just absolute sheet rain, from nothing. We could see fires sort of starting, around on the hills. You could see loads of small fires and we said 'oh we probably shouldn't stick around for much longer', but we did stick around for a little longer, and pretty much as we decided to leave – this is us just messing around playing hide and seek, I was only 13 and he was 10 – well, the way I perceive it is an explosion, to me it felt like an explosion at that moment, but it transpired it was lightning that hit a bush that was stood next to me, so it wasn't a direct hit on me, you know. It was on to a bush which I was a foot away from.

That's pretty much the last thing I remember for a few minutes, not long. I wasn't out cold or anything like that for too long. Next thing I remember is I was about six feet away from where the bush was. I had no idea what was going on and I was deaf and my brother was sort of frantically shaking me. I had a pair of shorts on and I remember the sensation of being extremely hot as well, like really hot - like really hot. I don't know how else to put it.

Yeah and he ran off and got one of our neighbours and took me to hospital, still completely deaf. You could see where it had hit, it was on my leg, there was slight singing on my shorts. As I started to understand what the hell had happened, we got taken to hospital and was, not there for very long... It was essentially a burn. That was the injury, but it took about a week, two weeks,  for the hearing to come back. And even after that there was still a high pitched ringing, pretty much constant, that lasted another month or so. But that went away by itself, there was no real treatment.

The burn scarred. Well, it didn't really scar, it went blotchy which is a bit weird, and no hair would grow on that part of my leg, it's just this weird patch. But oddly, about two and half years ago the hair started to grow back.

M: So, you didn't know what had happened at the time of the lightning strike, but what have you pieced together?

S: Well, only from my brother's account. It was an explosion like a bang. I didn't see a flash of light or anything like that, but my brother did see it, he told me it was lightning, and he started to write it down on a bit of paper – because I couldn't hear anything.

But to be honest, it wasn't the first time anything really bad had happened you know, there were lots of... we were a couple of kids who were always in some sort of trouble...

You know, I've broken 13 bones in my body, throughout my life.

M: 13?

S: Yeah, in total. All separate incidents.

To be honest, it was only about three of them happened before the lightning strike, all the rest are since then, weirdly.

They're not weird situations, most of it's just drunken stupidness, but the tally of broken bones is just extraordinary.

One of them, I was just in the crowd at a gig, messing around. I poured a load of beer over one of my friends, and then I slipped in my own beer and fell on the floor and broke my tailbone, and... how shall I put it? I erm, released (my bowels), at the exact same time... I dunno how you... you bruise your colon I guess, I don't know how it happened, but that was one of the most painful ones actually.

The pain was like... and this is someone's warehouse you know? You go to the toilet and it wasn't even my house... [laughs] It was pretty disgusting.

M: So, back to the lightning. The deafness, what was that caused by?

S:  Well, probably the explosion, I don't know... This is 1989, back in those days we didn't really... and also, in the south of Spain, they didn't exactly do therapy for you, I mean they did physiotherapy, but for hearing loss... It came back after a while so we didn't really follow it any further.

The tintitus was probably worse than the deafness. It was just constant.

M: So... You don't remember the details of the lightning, but you didn't see it happen because you were facing away from the bush?

S: My brother was the one that told me what happened. I had no perception of it at all, apart from being really hot and deaf [laughs].

M: Not two adjectives that go together that often.

S: Yeah, there probably aren't that many situations in which the outcome is that you're hot and deaf...

M: So, when did you actually find out you'd been hit by lightning?

S: When my brother wrote it down on a piece of paper in the car on the way to the hospital. He wrote “lightning” down in his phonetic English. He speaks English but he was a lot younger than me when he moved there, so his written English was not the best in the world. He spelled it, L I T N E N, or something like that.

M: How you did you begin to process the event after it happened?

S: I've thought about that quite a lot, but only because there have been so many things since then and, a couple of things before then... By that age I'd broken a leg, and I'd broken both my arms, and obviously my mum had passed away in a car crash a few years before in 1987, so, at the time it just became another thing to add to the collection, and there's been lots of things since then as well so... It kind of makes you think about what bad luck is and what, I suppose destiny is – not too put it in such a dramatic term!

When things just keep happening, I've found myself just saying, 'oh right, just another thing'. Even just small things like. It's just another one of those things, but if you put it through the filter of having had pretty serious things happen to you.. I dunno, I don't know how other people deal with it but I just put it on the pile.

M: What are the other things that you would put on that pile?

S: Pffttt. I dunno – a lot of them are to do with injury to be fair. I have to put it down to basic clumsiness cos I am just pretty clumsy. A lot of them are my own doing, so I don't know if you make a separation for that. Do things happen to you, or do you make things happen to you? Obviously you never win the lottery until you play the lottery – you make that happen to you...

Actually, just around the corner from here, I broke my ankle, cos I got drunk and I – I've got this thing of getting drunk and jumping off things that are ridiculously high – I jumped off this mezzanine in a warehouse, and I shattered my ankle. I was really pissed and I didn't think about it. I couldn't walk on it but it didn't hurt for a couple of hours, and then a friend, who'd become a city worker – the only person I know who works in the city – who was absolutely loaded, ordered a limousine to take me to Homerton Hospital.


It's just stupid things... but there's thousands of things like that that have happened.

I forget most of them, to be honest. Until someone says 'Hey do you remember that time you were walking along with your hands in your pockets and you fell down the stairs and you couldn't get them out as you fell?'

M: Did that actually happen?!

S: Yeah!

M: Do you see yourself as living a life that involves a lot of strange things happening to you?

S: Yeah, definitely. I've kind of... I wouldn't say I've accepted that but I've concluded that. And a lot of other people have implied that. Someone asked whether subconsciously you do it to yourself, but there's none of that as far as I know... I mean that's the conscious me speaking... But I don't hate myself or anything like that, I don't think!

M: Well, I mean you definitely can't get hit by lighting on purpose.

S: Yeah, there's definitely a lot of things you can't do on purpose. But because they're all in that same pile I kind of think about them in that same way.

This sounds a bit hippified, but if you think about things that are supposed to happen to you, and you think about them in the same scope as things that do happen to you...

You know, I got run over in Nottingham, but that was me not looking, crossing the street, but the guy was also speeding, so I don't really know how to filter them, how to archive them in my head. They're just all in one big thing of “stuff that happens”.

M: Could you just outline what happened when you got run over?

S: I didn't get run over actually, I got run under – I went over the car.

I was waiting to cross the road by a big shopping centre in the middle of Nottingham where I lived, and they used to use it as a boy racer track, going around the roads. And this guy came flying round the corner and went under me and I was fine! No injuries at all.

I just rolled over it, and he was flying past – not really sure how that worked out. I mean, I got grazed but nothing broke. But I've fallen over wheelie bins and broken two ribs... It's just, how do you quantify things like that?

My dad always says 'if it wasn't for bad luck you'd have no luck at all'.

M: So that's an event where you were “unlucky” in one sense, because you were hit by a car, but you were “lucky” in another because you were completely fine.

S: Yeah, bar being extremely shaken. All these things shake you up, and they are events in and of themselves, so you don't say 'oh well, I broke my ankle today, that's funny because two years ago I broke two ribs – something must be going on!'. It doesn't happen like that , it's only afterwards I started to go, 'oh god, there's another one', I really should just stop leaving the house!

M: Maybe you can clarify what you can and can't say about the plane crash? Can you even talk about being in a plane crash?

S: Well, it's not really a place crash. I wasn't in a plane that crash landed. It was a plane in Thailand that I was on, going from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north, the planes landing gear didn't open properly. So the plane just skidded into the forest at the end of the runway, and caught fire. And all the passengers were all over the place – there were no injuries. I was fine. Someone said that one of the stewardesses broke an arm, but, there were no mass injuries.

You say to people you've been in a plane crash, the instant thought is – ball of fire crashing into the earth, but they're not all bombs or malfunctions.

I was on holiday – it sounds trivial, but I just wanted to get on with it. It's just another one of those things. I was fine, no one was injured. I was absolutely terrified at the time, obviously. But we didn't go to hospital. We went to the hospital area in the airport and that was it. There were no injuries and everyone was walking.

The worst bit of it was being in the plane and coming coming to a halt, I remember that, from the moment of the landing gear going back in.

We went down the whole runway, and went off the end of it, and into the trees. That's what stopped the plane.

There was a small fire by one of the engines, I'm not sure if it was the engine or friction or what caused the fire though.

We saw the fire when we got out of the plane. I was relatively calm until I saw the fire. Then you could see what had happened and the remnants of the plane. And we had to come down the emergency chute, which is the only time I ever want to do that as well. [laughs]

M: When did you start to think about probability or luck?

S: Not that long ago. It wasn't any single event or injury or bad luck or good luck. It was probably quite recently. I think it was when other people started to ask me how many bones I'd broken or asked me if I'd ever thought why these things happen.

Philosophically, I just put it down to not really good luck or bad luck. My wife is always talking about regrets but I always say to her, 'What is the point of that?' It's a ludicrous concept, regret. You can be sad about something, but you can't regret something cos you can't change it.

M: So are you a determinist?

S: Yeah, to a certain extent. I don't see how things could have been different.

If it had all been self inflicted then I guess I'd just try and keep my eyes a bit more open, look where I'm going or not get so drunk or whatever. But there's a series of things that aren't just me, that aren't that common. So I've always tried to be philosophical about it.

Not a lot of people have lost a parent when they're young, and that was the first major thing. But, even that, some people have. It's not that big a deal. It's not that I've dealt with it, or that I'm over it, it's just that things happen – shit happens.

You could sit there and contemplate it but there's no fun in that. Who would want to do that?

M: So, you only started to think of all these things as something you had to come to terms with after other people started mentioning it?

S: Yeah, up until people started to question it. I don't really think about it that much really. A parent dying when you're a child is a good example as that's not so out of the ordinary – it does happen. And you do go over that sort of thing in your mind. You do pore over the circumstances. But it's done you know?

If I was able to formulate some sort of equation where I could prevent things happening, I would do it. Yeah. If I could go [clicks his fingers], 'well you've identified all the causes and all the circumstances and studied everything that ever happened and here's the solution. You've just got to do this', I'd probably do it. But that doesn't exist, I don't have that mathematical equation.

The danger of looking at these things... I went through a long period of recognising daily things. You start to focus on the likelihood of everyday, really small things and you start to lose your mind a little bit.

M: What do you think you're trying to do when you focus on these things?

S: I don't know – I guess because of the history of everything else... I mean I don't know, I don't do it any more. It's that thing of when you're a kid and you roll up a ball of paper and go to throw it in the bin and you go, 'If this goes in the bin I'm going to have a great week, and if it goes out of the bin I'm going to have a shit week'.

It's like an adult version of that, quantifying every tiny small thing that happens.

M: My feeling is that you'll always try and make sense of events, even if you can't make sense of them.

S: Well, the concept of good and bad is only our perception of it. I know breaking my arm is bad because, ok - I've broken my arm, that can't be perceived by me as a good thing - but in terms of things that happen every day in the universe, why is that a bad thing? It's just a thing.

M: But this does come from thinking about things in your own life/

S: Yeah, exactly, I've recognised that a lot of things that could be perceived by most other people as bad have happened to me, but then I've had lots of good things.

I'm happy, I've got a job, I've got a wife, I've got a flat. Those are good things.

I wish I could put the whole philosophy thing a bit more succinctly but I don't know how to simplify it any further. I guess “go with the flow” is the simple way of putting it.

These things happens. And they have happened. And they will. Undoubtedly.