Accuracy or Invention of Character

This post concerns these two approaches when it comes to fiction. (I like to think that writers of non-fiction don’t resort to invention.) It is also restricted to my own view on this subject without prejudice to what any other writer might do.

I have written six novels, two of which I have not attempted to publish. In one case the reason was that the book might have been deemed defamatory, though had this happened my defence would have been accuracy. Despite the fact that the subject is now dead, I would follow the same principle. I don’t consider it acceptable to defame someone, even if they are dead, for the purposes of fiction. There are no doubt many examples of this, but one which comes to mind (my mind, at least) is Antonio Salieri. This poor man has been traduced several times, for example, by Alexander Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov (after Pushkin) and most egregiously in the play Amadeus by Peter Schaffer, later made into a film. 

There was undoubtedly some rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, but there is also evidence of Salieri’s support for Mozart on several occasions, and also much evidence of Salieri’s kindness to others. When it came to teaching his speciality was singing – not an area Mozart ever entered – and it is known that he gave tuition free of charge except to the wealthy. Then there was his reaction to the death of his student, Marianna von Auenbrugger, at the age of 23. Marianna composed as well as played and when she died Salieri, at his own expense, published her Sonata in E-flat as a memorial to her. He was obviously deeply affected by the death of this talented young woman. 

Making things up is clearly a contentious subject and very much with us today. When the film Titanic aired, relatives of the first officer, William McMaster Murdoch, took exception to the portrayal of this gentleman, apparently with some reason.

But in case this has been forgotten, there are more recent examples. Over the past few years, a series called The Crown has been aired on Netflix. Unless the writers were flies on private walls, grouse moors and many other places on numerous occasions, the dialogue between members of the monarchy and those associated with them is invented. Okay, so the exact words were made up, but perhaps they bear accurate witness to the thoughts and feelings of those involved? For the most part, there is  no way of knowing. And some of these people are still with us today, notably Charles and Camilla who, I read, will shortly hit our screens in the forthcoming series of The Crown. The fact that some of us don’t consider this a good idea does not make it illegal: if it were, injunctions would surely be flying. For my part, it amazes me that writers can legally put words into the mouths of living people like this.

And what do we make of the series, Blonde, based on the  biography of Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates? I could, of course, follow the fashion of the times and insert an image of Marilyn at this point but prefer not to do so. What would it add? Most people already know what she looked like. 

To me this subject raises a number of question. For example, when we die, does our reputation die with us or is everyone free to trash it? Or how about this: can novelists and screen writers just make us up?

 

The Teahouse of the September Moon

There are far more coffee shops where I live than there were twenty years ago. Many of these are run by chains such as Costa, Starbucks and Caffè Nero. But there are independents too, some of them excellent. In the past, patrons used to gather in coffee shops and discuss burning issues of the day – the use of gas for street lighting, the benefits of laudanum in the creative process. On occasion, they even discussed books. But now, as far as I can tell, the emphasis is on coffee, pastries and other such delectables.

These three Chinese girls are at the counter of my favourite independent, the Kilimajaro in Edinburgh, clearly suffering from the existential agony of choice. So many goodies to choose from, what should we have?

And did I just mention Chinese? In the past three or four years, there has been an noticeable increase in the number of tea shops here. This is very evident in the part of the city I inhabit, the south side. And I am amazed to find the great variety of teas on offer.

The reason for this increase in tea shops seems clear. The south side is home to the University of Edinburgh which, every year, recruits a large number of Chinese students. And where there is a market, someone will try to cater for it.

So the next time you visit us here in Edinburgh, don’t hesitate to pop into one of our new tea shops. You don’t have to speak Mandarin or Cantonese, you can always point to the picture of your brew of choice.

Lost Skills

Some skills are not so much lost as replaced by others. In this case, I’m thinking of audio recording. I used to record a lot, mainly actors and theatre SFX, and greatly enjoyed it. In times past, which is where I belong, people like me would use open reel tape decks both in the studio and on location. They were very well engineered and a joy to work with. The power they produced when rewinding and fast forwarding was amazing. You could feel the draught on your face.

There weren’t so many portable open reel machines, but they were good. You could tape an interview on location, edit it with a splicing block, razor and chinagraph pencil, and the edited version was of broadcast quality. The leader in the field was Nagra, wonderful machines but expensive. If you didn’t have that kind of money you could always use a Uher. They were excellent too and cost a bit less.

Although a few people used open reel decks in the home they were by no means common. For two reasons. The first was size: they tended to be large and heavy. The second was the fact that the user had to thread the audio tape from the full spool to the empty spool to start recording or replaying – and taking the correct route to get there required a little knowledge and a modicum of physical skill. Oh, and did I mention leader tape?

So these ‘problems’ were addressed by manufacturers having an eye on the mass market, Phillips, for example, and they came up with the audio cassette. The audio cassette was, and still, is very small, so the machine used to record on it or replay it could also be small. And they went down very well with the public at large since these neat little audio cassettes came ready spooled. At a stroke, the hassle was removed!  As a result, cassette machines really took off. People could be seen jogging along pavements with their Walkmans and they became a standard feature of cars for many years. But the price paid for this user-friendly miniaturisation was a big reduction in recording quality (explained in a note below).

In fact, the real cause of the loss of open reel recording skills was not the audio cassette but the rise of the computer, which allowed us to dispense with tape altogether. We have now moved from the analogue era (tape) to the digital (computer recording and editing). The program I used at work was Pro Tools, which was and still is a sophisticated recording and editing package.

So, what’s it to be: analogue lor digital? When I recently suggested a solution to an audio problem it was soon pointed out to me that my solution involved straying into the analogue domain. This was true, but with it came the assumption that digital is inherently superior to analogue. It’s certainly superior to the audio cassette format, but is it superior, say, to an open reel machine recording at 15 inches per second? I don’t think so.

You could argue that a good analogue recording gives us the whole wave where the digital recording gives us samples of it. So many that we almost have the whole wave, but it can never give us the wave in its entirety. So how is that better? And it’s worth pointing out that we all have analogue ears!

Where digital recording scores, though, is when it comes to editing, as the previous clip showed. Lifting part of a recording and relocating it is easy, stretching the on-screen representation of the wave to find a precise edit point is easy, deleting part of a recording is easy.

And these are just three examples of how wonderful it is to edit using good software. There are many more. But there is a downside. With on-screen editing it is possible to make a singer or an actor sound much better than he/she actually is. I know because I’ve done it.

So, as technology develops, we replace old skills with new ones because it’s the obvious thing to do and we old timers are left on the shore watching the tide go out. But that’s OK. We can live with that.

Note on Audio Cassettes

One thing cassettes cannot do is make recordings of broadcast quality. There are two reasons for this: the width of the tape and the speed at which it passes the record/replay heads. The size of a cassette tape is determined by the size of the cassette. The width of the tape is only 0.15 inches (3.81mm). This narrow width has to accommodate four tracks – the left and right channels of Side A and the left and right channels of Side B. And here we meet a misconception arising from the use of the word ‘Side’. All four tracks are actually on the same side of the tape because audio tape is only recordable on one side.

As if this isn’t demanding enough, each of these four tracks has to be separated, otherwise the listener would experience crosstalk – two tracks being played at once and one of them might be heard backwards. In short, very little tape is available for each track. So let’s come up with an idea which makes this bad situation even worse. The tape crawls past the heads at a mere 1 7/8 inches per second. The result is noise, because too much information is being crammed onto too little tape.

Compare this to an open reel machine using one or two inch tape passing the heads at 15 inches per second. Here there is ample room for the information being recorded, it is no longer crammed onto tiny amounts of tape and there is no problem with noise.

Noise reduction systems were designed deal with the cassette noise problem. The best known of these by a long way are the various versions from Dolby Laboratories, founded by Ray Dolby. They are very ingenious, though to my ear the results, while far less noisy, don’t quite correspond to the original sounds being recorded. But few people buying a commercially recorded audio cassette of the Grateful Dead have ever heard the original so they aren’t likely to notice.

 

 

The Power of Negative Thinking

It is always assumed that negative thoughts are bad for mental health and there are clearly times when they are. For example, being unable to rid the mind of a specific negative thought for days, hours or weeks is likely to be harmful. The longer it takes up residence the harder it may be, like an unwanted lodger, to show it the door. Or it might, as it were, create a well-trodden path which it refuses to abandon. A phrase like neural pathway comes to mind, though how medically accurate this is I don’t know.

As a consequence of this, there are many authors out there (life coaches, persons of faith, shrinks, gurus, swamis and the like) who advocate positive thinking and extol methods by which this may be encouraged. I note that these books are often categorized as to whether they are aimed at men or women and suspect (I’m too indolent to count) that more are aimed at women than men. Why might that be? As a rule, women give more thought to such things, and those of them who live with men will sometimes have a stronger incentive.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of positive thoughts to help us through this vale of tears. Firstly, Abraham Lincoln:

“Whatever you are, be a good one.”  

Nice one, Abraham. So how would a rapist, swindler or a Vladimir Putin live up to that? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Moving quickly on to Tupac:

“Reality is wrong, dreams are for real.”

If reality is wrong and dreams are real, then dreams are wrong, right Tupac?

It would not only be possible but easy to expose many such statements of the positive to a negative critique, but we would not want to remove their crutches from people who really need them to get along. What would be the point?

But it seems that ridding the brain of negative thoughts is to be encouraged. Take Eliminate Negative Thinking by Derek Howell, for example, a book which specifically targets negative thoughts. An obvious question arises. How effective are such books for those who read them? I don’t believe that social scientists have applied themselves to answering this question, and it would a very difficult task to attempt, but a certain person I know well has an impressive library of self-help books yet has confined himself/herself to the bedroom for the last several years. I already hear the reply, Ah, yes, but I’d even worse off without them. And there is no way to test this, so life goes on.

Yet we should at least ask whether all negative thoughts are bad. Veronika sits in the graveyard thinking I am totally worthless because her friends have dropped her from seventeen social media platforms. It is theoretically possible that she is totally worthless but highly unlikely. Snap out of it, Veronica! Meanwhile her sister, Verity, interrogating her newsfeed on the subject of Ukraine, comes to the view that there is no level of base behaviour to which some will not sink. Since there is ample evidence of this over thousands of years, Verity is entitled to subscribe to this negative view on the grounds that negative though it may be it is also realistic.

A phrase that struck me many moons ago was penned by Thucydides – Human nature being what it is. Say no more, mate, we get the message.

Though given to negative thoughts, I tend to keep them to myself. However realistic they may be, they don’t go down well. And that’s OK, I can live with that. The fact that I can also die with that is neither here nor there.

She’s Standing Outside

Kate is a TV reporter who confirms that she is standing outside Windsor Castle. And it’s true. Yes, we can see that, but what we can’t see is why she’s doing it. Is the castle about to make a Major Statement? Unlikely. Will a member of the royal family pop out to offer privileged insights into the current state of play regarding Harry and Meghan, Queen Camilla, or that revered scion of the royal establishment, Andrew Albert Christian Edward? Just as unlikely.

We frequently find reporters outside buildings including, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, New Scotland Yard, the Ministry of Defence and Stormont Castle, where the Legislative Assembly is seldom to be found in session these days. What lies behind this behaviour?

Well, it wouldn’t happen in radio, but I assume this habit is to show television viewers that the reporters of Sky, the BBC and so on, are always on the spot – the spot being where the action is or, more frequently, where it is not. So forget about the wasted time and effort and admire the visual credentials of the broadcast media.

However, as misreported by those same media, Downing Street, unlike Windsor Castle, actually does make statements. This is a way of avoiding the attribution of the statements in question to actual people and saving them having to defend them. It’s gone on for so many years now that most of us take it for granted, According to Downing Street . . . But it’s an evasion. I have examined several pictures of 10 Downing Street and there is no sign of a mouth on any of them.

There is one major exception where standing outside makes sense. Reporters often gather outside courts of law where a judgement is expected. This is especially true in contentious cases where litigants and lawyers will spill outside onto the pavement after the conclusion of a trial to read  prepared statements and sometimes answer questions. Despite the verdict of the court, Captain Sparrow stoutly asseverates his innocence of the charges and intends to lodge an appeal at the earliest opportunity. We’ve never Heard the like.

The saying a picture is worth a thousand words is as popular as it is untrue. Leaving aside the fact that that it has never been easier to doctor visual images than it is now, engaging in a discussion involving concepts can be accomplished elegantly with words – not so easily with oil on canvas. Take death. An artist or photographer can show us one or more dead bodies, the result of death. But what of death itself, death as a concept? To take but one example, how do we define death when it comes to deciding when to switch off the ventilator? To deal with such questions only words will do.

I could easily have sprinkled throughout this post images of Windsor Castle, 10 Down Street and New Scotland Yard, not to mention mugshots of Prince Edward (is that really his hand?) and Johnny Depp. but since they would have added nothing at all to the meaning, chose not to do so.

Despite the fact that they are often subverted by politicians and cheating partners, words remain the best medium of communication we have. But I would say that, wouldn’t I.

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

 

Remembering the Dead

In one of our local graveyards some of the stones are so old that the original inscriptions can no longer be read, though some dating back to 1760 can still be partially made out.

Unless stonemasons have found a way round this problem, I assume this fate will eventually befall all headstones, however clear they may be when first made.

Modern technology allows photographs of the departed to be included on the stone and I see this occasionally. I find it unsettling, though I have yet to figure out why. But in this case the inscription ‘forever young’ seems very well chosen. The lady died young and will not grow older. Just as important, she will never grow old in the memory of those who knew her. What a loss this must have been.

When it comes to wording, it is less common to read that the departed died, except in times gone by when ‘died’ was commonly used: after all, since we’re in a graveyard this is obviously what has happened. In the past, the death of children was much more common than now and there was no avoiding it, and many who made it into adult life died younger than they would today. ‘Passed away’ is often used in speech these days, but seldom on our local headstones. Lately I have come across several examples of ‘fell asleep’ which, for me, is taking euphemism too far. They did not fall asleep, they died.

I was much struck in Afghanistan to see that though many died young a few hardy specimens made it through to a ripe old age, though I wouldn’t give much for their chances now. I remember one old gentleman with a donkey I passed on a narrow footpath above a ravine. We couldn’t converse, but he produced a bag of dried mulberries from his sleeve and kindly offered me some. When I think of my time there I can’t believe I didn’t take a camera.

I would claim that my interest in these things is not especially morbid: my route home from the baker takes me through a cemetery. On my most recent visit I came across something I have never seen before, so I am not referring to the collection of empty beer cans and bottles I reported in an earlier post.

Family members had left, among other objects, a little Christmas tree by the graveside. They were still including this lady in.

Sometimes lines of verse are included on the stone. Here is one example.

Here in your garden

Free from all pain

We would not wake you

To suffer again

It seems that this lady suffered before she died and these lines offer a degree of solace to those left behind. I think they are excellent.

Another way of remembering the dead, at least in our part of the world, is a bench where the weary traveller can rest his bones. This one is by a bus stop where I catch the bus to Bonnyrigg.

I never knew this lady but find one of her middle names intriguing. Holdforth. I can only suppose that one or more of her forebears was given to holding forth – a lay preacher perhaps, or a politician – and so acquired the name. Except for this bench, I have never come across this surname anywhere else.

Is death an appropriate subject not only for reflection but for humour? I would contend that if humour is appropriate for life – a much more serious business about which we can do something – then it should also be appropriate for death, about which we can do nothing.

It would be possible to offer a funeral verse service through Fiverr or some such, each verse or stanza to be tailored to the relative’s circumstances, much as some offer for birthdays. An opportunity for a deft spot of black humour. There is, of course, the well known joke about the dentist filling his last cavity. Or how about this?

My husband never gave me a dime,

Now he’s gone and not before time!

But even if lines likes these were perfectly attuned to the facts, I have since learned that ‘the authorities’ exercise control over what may be inscribed upon headstones stone by the monumental mason.

Ah well, you can’t win them all. Or, in the case of death, you can’t win any.

Who’d Have Thunk It?

There I was, strolling down the road to visit my daughter, when I spotted something yellow in the distance which hadn’t been there before. What was it, I hear you ask?Anticipating this question, I altered course just a little and went to examine it.

It was a box, standing on its own sturdy legs, which looked as though it contained books. Could this really be? I opened it to find out and, sure enough, there were the books.

So what was going on here, what was the idea? The answer was to be found on the side.

Authors might not like this idea so much. If books are provided free without even having to go to a conventional library, they’re not going to make much money. Although, when you think about it, most of us don’t anyway.

So let’s hope the locals make good use of the Little Library. We shall see.

Wildflowers

Like many people, I have always loved wildflowers, but they have their enemies. Some years ago, a man with a backpack containing weedkiller killed a beautiful outcrop of Ivy-Leaved Toadflax growing in a street we often visited.

For them there was no escape, but one way wildflowers avoid destruction is by growing close enough to obstacles which get in the way of motor mowers. There are several outcrops of Veronica in our local churchyard which survive by growing close to headstones – though these lovely little flowers should be welcome anywhere.

Until recently, the grounds of our local hospital was improved by the striking wildflower, Orange Hawkweed.

Today, I find them gone, thanks to someone with a motor mower. You can’t win them all but it would be nice to win some. I am reminded of a poem by Robert Frost.

The Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Dandelions

I took this picture of dandelions in our local churchyard. Earlier in the year this space was occupied by crocuses, all purple and planted in serried ranks.

Most gardeners like crocuses but dislike dandelions, taking particular exception to them when they spring up unbidden on their lawns. They are sturdy flowers with a highly succesful method of disseminating themselves on the wind. And since they are so succesful and so difficult to eliminate, they are classified as weeds. And this is where I hit a problem of theology, not confined to those dandelions I discover in churchyards.

I have often heard it said that God cteated all living things. For those who take this view, it follows that God must have created dandelions (not to mention mosquitoes and viruses). In which case I cannot accept that God created weeds. And what is the point in God creating them only to find gardeners trying to exterminate them with chemical weed killers? Instead of attacking them, gardeners of faith must surely accept this wonderful gift from God with a good heart.

Moving on from the plant to the animal kingdom, exactly the same problem arises with animals categorised as vermin such as rats and foxes. Are we really to believe that God created vermin?