Being vox-popped in the street isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but the odds of being dragooned by journalists while walking out your front door are now almost as great as being mown down by an electric scooter.
As both a vox-popper and a vox-poppee for many years (you’d never guess how often journalists save time and effort by interviewing each other), I welcome the sight of a camera crew lumbering into focus to seek out public opinion on the price of toilet rolls or the state of the nation. It’s the oldest form of social media.
And thus it was that, as I dog-walked through a sunlit Parc Georges Henri the other day minding my own business, a trio from RTL popped up and asked me if they could ask me a question.
Of course you can, I replied. Professional pride obviously prevented me from asking what the question was before the camera rolled, but I was braced for a tricky bluff through something complicated about Belgian politics.
The reporter smiled and said: “Today is Friday the 13th. Does that scare you?”
What a great question! I replied that I hadn’t been aware of the date, but now that I was aware, I’d spend the rest of my day watching out for falling tree branches, avoiding walking under workman’s ladders and generally being on edge until the midnight hour.
I added that I’d stayed in hotels which had no 13th floor, and I recalled my mum always warning us kids to be extra careful on Friday 13th when crossing the road and so on.
What I didn’t say, because vox pops are always brief, is that every year has at least one Friday the 13th in it. Many have two. The maximum is three, which last occurred in 2015 and will happen next in 2026.
I also didn’t have time to say that in 1969 at the age of 13, an Eton schoolboy and future mathematician, S. R. Baxter proved that the 13th of the month is more likely to fall on a Friday than any other day. It’s the kind of statistic which terrifies triskaidekaphobics, who fear the number 13 whether it’s linked to a Friday or not.
Luckily, the word triskaidekaphobia has 17 letters, while the word paraskavedekatriaphobia – the name for a fear of Friday the 13th specifically – is even more remote from the number 13, with 23 letters.
Dr Thomas Fernsler of Manfield University in Pennsylvania, an expert in triskaidephobia, dallies with the number 13. He has been known to give 13-minute long lectures on the subject which start at 13.13 on Friday the 13th.
Famous triskaidephobics include Napoleon Bonaparte, Mark Twain and two US presidents, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – although none of them were around to be influenced by the most famous disaster linked to the number, the Apollo 13 space mission. It was launched on April 11, 1970, which doesn’t sound very unlucky, until triskies point out that if you add four (the month of April), to 11 and 70, the result is 85. And when you add eight and five you get……gulp…13.
No use telling diehard triskies that none of this happens if you include the 19 bit of 1970. They will reply that Apollo 13 was launched from Pad 39 (three times 13) at 13.13 pm local time and was struck by an explosion on April 13th.
Roosevelt always avoided going on visits on the 13th whether it was a Friday or not. If necessary, he left a little before midnight on the 12th or waited until the 14th.
If there was any danger of hosting 13 for lunch or dinner at the White House, Roosevelt’s secretary Grace Tully was added to the guest list. FDR was such a triskie that he made sure he died on Thursday, April 12th, 1945, just before Friday 13th.
None of this, obviously, made it into the three-minute RTL interview, which probably spared its viewers a lot of worry, even though the superstition about 13 is utter nonsense. Or maybe not, because I’ve just noticed that those two dismissive words, utter nonsense, contain 13 letters......
Old dogs, new trisks
As I was leaving the park, a youngish woman and her small son were playing on the swings. The boy clearly liked the look of Mikey, my dog. I went over so that he could stroke him and chatted to the boy’s mum for a moment or two. She said she was sorry, she didn’t speak French but understood English, which I said suited me perfectly.
When I asked where she was from, she said she was a Ukrainian refugee recently arrived from Kyiv and was very, very happy to be living in such a wonderful country with such nice people. I wished her good luck and went on my way.
Looking back as I reached the road, I saw the RTL television crew approach her and realised what was about to happen.
I wish I’d been close enough to hear how a Ukrainian refugee who’s just escaped war and found peace and security in Belgium answers a question like: “Today is Friday the 13th: does that scare you?”