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?

 

Songs in Film and TV Drama

Your attitude will depend on how you think fiction works. For example, you might like to feel, as you watch a cast of characters in action, that the events on the screen are actually taking place. You’re well aware that this isn’t the case but suspend your disbelief till the drama is over.

Now imagine two lovers reluctantly bidding each other farewell in an airport never to meet again. You might expect public service announcements in the background: Would passengers for flight ABC1234 for Dahomey please report to gate D8. What you would not expect is their dialogue to be intercut with a song. Where is the singer? In that fast food outlet over there? Lurking out of sight at the Delta Airlines desk?

As the parting plays out you realise that the singer isn’t there at all. So how come you’re hearing her? If this touching scene is really happening, as you would like to believe, then she would not be there at all.

Of course there will occasions when a given scene will justify music, or even demand it. A private eye in a car plays the radio, two characters sip lattes in a café where music (Wallpaper Volume 3) is playing in the background, three old friends sweat it out at a comeback gig of the Grateful Dead.

But increasingly, the custom is to zap the viewer with music in the absence of any such justification. Since we already know this cannot add credibility, we have to ask if it contributes something else, for example, adding meaning or significance to the action.

So . . .

Have we noticed how often people begin statements with the word ‘so’? In the past (a time zone I cheerfully inhabit) ‘so’ used to signify a consequence. I punched him on the nose SO he punched me back. These days, though, the word is deployed in much the same way that the Angles and Saxons used the word Hwaet! But I realise I’m going back a bit here.

So there is a television show called Hanna, three seasons in all.

Are songs used in the delivery of these episodes? They certainly are. According to the website Tunefind, if you watched all 22 episodes you’d be hit by a grand total of 150 songs. One hundred and fifty! And I have to reveal that this viewer has been hit by all of them and he didn’t like it one bit. So much so that he had the mute button handy whenever a song started and was therefore obliged to follow the dialogue through subtitles.

When it comes to Hanna and many other series, I find that songs compete with dialogue for our attention.  I have no idea why programmes are made in this way. In the old days, when CD albums were the thing, films were often made with enough songs to make up an album as a part of an associated merchandising campaign. I’m not sure if it works in quite this way now, when individual songs can be streamed or downloaded. Maybe it does.

Another niggle. I have often noticed that the makers of TV series/film have an unwelcome desire to play an individual song in its entirety. This, of course, stops the action dead in its tracks. So they attempt to cover the problem by a sequence of visuals; the femme fatale in her shower thinking her thoughts, the assassin preparing his or her weapon, complete with silencer.

Sometimes, despite all of the above, a film is made which does very well with songs. An example of this would be O Brother, Where Art Thou? Yes, for reasons which will obvious to anyone who has read this far, I too am a man of constant sorrow.

Learning by accident

When we arrived we went to our hotel, a well-designed modern building; every room has a picture window view over the river.

Victoria Hotel 3

This photograph of the parliament building was taken through the window of our bedroom.

Parliament from bedroom

To one side of Reception was a bar, to the other a dining room.

Victoria Hotel 2

But behind Reception, to the rear of the building, was something else entirely, an area normally kept locked. Through the doorway we could see beautifully carved woodwork and a flight of stairs.  ‘What is this?’ we asked the receptionist. This, he told us, was a reconstruction of rooms where a famous composer had lived before the Nazis invaded. The house had been destroyed during the defence of Budapest against the Soviets when Germans and Hungarians had tried to hold off Russians and Romanians.

And who was the famous composer? He was Jenő Hubay, which disconcerted me a lot because I hadn’t heard of him. A little research found that he was a fine violin player who had studied with Joseph Joachim, played chamber music with Brahms and had a string of famous pupils himself, including Carl Nielsen’s son-in-law, Emil Telmanyi, for whom Nielsen wrote his violin concerto.

B_hubay_jeno_0

The owners of the hotel have carefully reconstructed some of Hubay’s house, where he used to hold recitals until his death in 1937. They were so popular that his wife started them up again two years later.

Hubay rooms 2Hubay rooms 1

Hubay has a considerable number of compositions to his credit. These include operas and also, as you would expect, compositions for the violin including four concertos. It sometimes happens that when a virtuoso writes concertos for his or her instrument they are strong on technical demands but weak in musical interest. This is not always the case, though, and certainly isn’t with Jenő Hubay. His concertos are excellent and well scored. Here is Ragin playing a movemnt of the third concerto.

And there are a few recordings featuring Hubay himself.

Two more little wrinkles. Hubay married a countess, Róza Cebrian.

Hubay and Cebrian

And then there is the Chaplin connection. Chaplin’s daughter, Antoinette, studied violin with Jenő Hubay in Budapest in the 1920’s and often mentioned Hubay and members of his family in letters home. That said, she did not stand comparison with most of Hubay’s other students.

But I have just begun to explore all this and haven’t even mentioned General Bem, about whom a book could be written and probably has been.

Taylor Swift’s Legs

Taylor Swift is a woman of unblemished countenance who sings songs. Although she doesn’t sing with her legs, they are deemed to be a major part of her act in much the same way as Betty Grable’s legs were in bygone years. Remember Betty?

 Betty Grable

‘Hosiery specialists of the era often noted the ideal proportions of her legs as thigh (18.5 inches (47 cm)), calf (12 inches (30 cm)), and ankle (7.5 inches (19 cm)).[2] Grable’s legs were famously insured by her studio for $1 million with Lloyds of London.’ (Wikipedia)

Mean (song)

Mean (song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia

I read that Ms Swift has also insured her legs – reportedly for the sum of $26,000,000. This may be an astute move on her part since breaking one of them would ruin her forthcoming tour. Why? Because, nowadays, singing is not enough. There has to be bodywork too. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs didn’t need to gyrate, and neither did Doc Watson, but times have changed. So get out there, why don’t you, and shake those tail feathers!

2005 picture of USA banjo player Earl Scruggs

2005 picture of USA banjo player Earl Scruggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact I have no interest in Ms Swift’s legs, but I have been following some of her other moves. She seems to be an astute business person.

To maintain her squeaky clean image, she has bought the domain names TaylorSwift.porn and TaylorSwift.adult before they become available to buy as part of a public sale by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) planned to take place on 1 June. She has done this so that no one else can use these domain names to move ‘adult’ material. According to Ad Week, a select few businesses and individuals were offered the opportunity to buy addresses based on the new domains for $2,500 (£1,600) before they went on the open market and Ms Swift was one of those individuals. I think she did the right thing.

But Ms Swift has done something else as well. She has applied to trademark five phrases from her latest album 1989: ‘Party like it’s 1989’, ‘this sick beat’, ‘cause we never go out of style’, ‘could show you incredible things’, and ‘nice to meet you, where you been?’

So if you are innocently writing a novel or short story including the line, ‘Nice to meet you, where you been?’ you could end up on the wrong side of a law suit from Ms Swift’s legal team. I am not a lawyer, but I cannot see how it can be right to trademark an entirely normal phrase like this. Such moves should be resisted. If your book exists in file form only it will be easy to amend, but if you or your publisher have paid for a print run as well, then the entire consignment might have to be pulped.

Two years ago I came across an author who discovered, by way of a heavy letter from a lawyer, that her title had been trademarked and she couldn’t legally use it. Since her book was self-published, she had to come up with a new title, no easy matter, and pay for an amended cover design. All of which caused her considerable anguish.

Surely this is not the way we want to go.

A blast from the past (continued)

I have been asked for some background to a recent post, A Blast From The Past. What was I doing in Afghanistan in the first place?

____________________________________________________________________

Although I am not a biologist I went on a biology expedition to Afghanistan as medical officer, which involved training before we left in setting broken legs with splints and injecting innocent oranges with water. All good fun, but what would have been more useful was learning how to deal with problems of the digestive system. To better earn my keep I supplemented the bandages and syringes with a small study of music in the Badakshan province, my equipment being ears, a tape recorder and manuscript paper.

Badakshan 2

Badakshan province is in the far north east of Afghanistan and much of it is mountainous, including part of the Hindu Kush. This is a photograph of the provincial capital, Faizabad.

Faizabad

To get to our destination we travelled overland in an ex-army K9 truck through Greece, Turkey and Iran, and took the same way back. Since I did not then have a camera all I have to offer are a few verbal snapshots supplemented with images from the web. I do not claim to be a latter-day Freya Stark.

Men with guns

We were rounded up by a unit of Turkish army and removed to a low building with small, glassless windows. We spent the night there, a soldier with a rifle at each window. They were worried we might be taken out by Kurds. We had seen quite a few, many on horseback, but they had always ignored us.

A café in Herat

A waiter had hung his pencil on the wall. Suddenly I noticed that the wall was swaying from side to side about the pencil, which remained pointing towards the floor. I thought I was losing it and took a little too long to hit the street. From memory, the earthquake was centred near Mashad in Iran.

A quiet game of chess

We sat on a rug under a tree. I used to play chess, and even defeated a reverend once in a competition, but this time my strategy was different. If the Afghan was better than I was, then I would lose and we would both be happy. If he was not a good player, I would have the difficult task of engineering a loss without making it obvious what I was doing. That way we would both be happy too. On no account would I use the en passant rule in case it was not known in these parts. I had no wish to be accused of cheating. The game took quite a while, during which I ate the occasional grape while some of my colleagues  resorted to deep draughts from a hookah.

Hookah 3

I find it amusing that the current craze for e-cigarettes uses vapour – exactly what the hookah has been doing in its various forms for some four hundred years.

 A game of volleyball

Challenged to a game of volleyball by the Afghan army, engineering a loss was not necessary. We didn’t stand a chance.

 Checking Shoes

We checked them every morning before putting them on to make sure they weren’t occupied by scorpions.

The baker

I still remember the grim look on the his face when, for the third night running, our lead biologist with his advanced technology failed to trap any of the rodents raiding his mill.

Losing a gear

When our truck lost its reverse gear a local mechanic managed to fix it. Our problem then was to avoid offending him – either by offering him too little or too much money. What local mechanics managed to do with limited tools was amazing. They were particularly good at keeping fire-arms in working order, a fact foreign invaders might have taken into account.

Ceremonial tea

On several occasions we were invited to join village elders in large tents, where we were offered tea and unleavened bread. We knew drinking the tea might be risky, but refusing to drink it more so.  The custom was to sit round the edges of the tent on carpets and rugs. We did what we could to communicate using hand gestures. All of the people we met on these occasions were men.

 An old man and a donkey

I met several old men in Afghanistan, but had to remind myself that these were the ones who had survived disease and ill health. Many had not.

I have a clear memory of one in particular. We were making our way along a path about two feet wide. The path was half way up a ravine, raging water below and high cliff above. Stepping aside for someone coming the other way was dangerous, and this particular old gent was not only coming the other way but had a donkey with him. He produced a bag of dried mulberries from his flowing sleeve and offered us some. Very civil of him, I thought at the time, as I tried to take a few without plunging into the torrent below. He hit us with the usual greeting, which we returned. As I remember it, this was ‘burubachai’, but I recently found out I had mis-remembered some Serbian I used to know, so maybe I have this wrong too.

Music

Most of the music I heard took the form of songs accompanied by small stringed instruments. The songs were strophic, and a given song sometimes had quite a few verses. I was told by a passing group of US anthropologists that the subject matter was usually patriotic. Add this to the local ability to make and repair weapons and Afghanistan is a place only an idiot would think of invading.

I recorded quite a few of these songs, but the recordings were taken back to the UK when I was in hospital in Belgrade and I have not been reunited with them since. Something else I learned was that women had music of their own, but always played it in their own homes. Not being a woman myself, there was no possibility of eavesdropping on this music, let alone recording it.

Note 1

The present Kurdish problem has been caused by the arrogance of diplomats during the First World War, who thought it was alright to draw invisible lines in the sand and deny the Kurds a homeland of their own, splitting them up between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria – a problem which persists to this day.  Check out Sir Mark Sykes, Monsieur  François Georges-Picot and their secret agreement of 1916.

Note 2

Readers of a musical tendency might like to know that the songs I recorded were in the mixolydian mode. This mode is not far removed from our major diatonic major scale except that the seventh degree is flattened. So if the major scale was C major, then instead of a B natural we have a B flat (Bb). Thinking in terms of chords, Vaughan Williams might use this Bb as part of a G minor chord, whereas Carl Nielsen would surely have used it as part of a Bb major chord. Isn’t life fun?

Making money from torture

I read that the Canadian group Skinny Puppy has billed the US government for $666,000 in royalty payments. No doubt the use of the sum 666 is thought to be witty. Why have they submitted this demand? A security guard and a fan at Guantanamo Bay told the band that its music had been used to torture prisoners, which could only be done by playing it.

I also read in Wikipedia that ‘The group is widely considered to be one of the founders of the electro-industrial genre.’ Until now I had no idea there was such a genre, but if the description is accurate it might commend itself to torture of the sensitive if played for any length of time. To judge from the royalty demand it was played at Guantanamo for weeks on end.

Like many, I first came across this abuse of music when the US military blasted Manuel Noriega with rock music prior to his capture in 1989. At the time he was holed up in the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See’s embassy in Panama, and crumbled after five days.

If, like me, you find the words hard to make out, the following is a transcript.

oil remove shred and tear radiation vapor
it’s the fear so unclear man in motion going nowhere
in our homes stuck in the face spread the dirt to populace
yellow journal yellow journal set the pace feel the rage
manifestations of a sort so insidious off the point
simple solution never confusion sport a gun kill a cop
crazy world of weary thought so receive me had enough
lock me up lock me up
rot and assimilate so hot to annihilate
deviation tonic mess prolonged existence innocence
is he who speaks isn’t weak wheelchair virtue so to speak
bubonic plague the truth of aids immunity avoid decay
in the trench of pestilence the bible screams announce your faith
mutterings of death to bring suffocate a newborn thing
degradation of an age venereal it’s all sensation
protect design the moral plan infallible as propaganda
completely black with no steps back
hot to assimilate we’ll rot or annihilate
agony profusely stains the inner thinking of the brain
accusations clanking chains experiments with the groans of pain
all prefer no one blames the terror in an animal’s screams
in cages our future – the answers insane

 

When your body lets you down

It happens to everyone from time to time. Some get tennis elbow, others housemaid’s knee. So let’s imagine that the tennis player is a professional and the housemaid likewise: they would not be able to continue earning, and that would be a serious set-back.

Tendinitis (not to mention bursitis and carpal tunnel syndrome) can be difficult to treat. Rest is involved, and rest takes time. It could easily set you back six to eight weeks and, in some cases, much longer.

I first came across it when my left wrist seized up because of the way I was playing the fiddle. Not only was I practising too intensely, I was putting undue strain on the tendon of the left wrist. At the time I went for a radical solution – restringing the violin and playing left-handed. (And for the technical among you, no, I did not relocate the sound post, which I should really have done.) This was only possible for an amateur like me and is not recommended. A professional player couldn’t do it and succeed. When playing the fiddle the left and right hands are doing radically different things. You can’t just change over and resume where you left off.

So what happens if a part of the body you rely on to make your way in the world packs in, either temporarily or permanently? I thought of this recently when I met someone I knew and she just smiled. She had lost her voice. Her doctor had taken a peek but could find nothing wrong. The consultant at ENT had stuck a cable up her nostril and down to her vocal cords. It was tipped with a camera. He could see nothing wrong either.

This is what she said without using her voice: ‘My singing career is over before it’s even begun.’

A wry comment, and good way to put it, but she is not a singer. What if she had been? What is a singer supposed to do if she loses her voice? Take up knitting?

A musical way to reduce stress

At a course I was on recently, I learned that when we breathe in our heart-rate increases and when we breathe out it decreases. So a useful technique for reducing stress is to exhale slowly following a sharp intake of breath.

It is possible to do this as an exercise, but I find it requires considerable discipline. So an obvious approach would be to play a wind instrument. Since I used to play the trombone, I considered that. But I no longer have one and, besides, people tend to notice when you’re playing. The trombone isn’t the quietest of instruments. On the other hand, it does require a fair bit of air to fill it, hence my present lung capacity.

So in theory, the best way to go about stress relief using a wind instrument would be to select one which requires a lot of air. And the obvious candidate would be – yes, you’ve got it! – the Sousaphone.

Sousaphone

Photo by TAZphotos via Flickr Creative Commons

Unfortunately I don’t have one of those either, and in any case the neighbours would notice that even more than the bone. Yet if only I had one what couldn’t I achieve? I could set up a tribute band playing old Temperance Seven numbers and call myself the Reverend Rod for purely promotional, as opposed to devotional purposes.

Leaving such fantasies aside, I think of the flute. It takes more air than you might think to play the flute since you need two flows of air – one into the instrument and the other across the mouthpiece. I used to have a flute but don’t any longer, so an alternative had to be found. I sashayed into various music shops till I located what I was looking for – a tin whistle, also known as a penny whistle. (Life being what it is, there isn’t an ounce of tin in it: it’s made of brass and costs a bit more than a penny.)

The whistle is small, but you can hold a note on it for a long time, hold several successive notes for a long time. It beats just breathing out. But – and there is always a ‘but’ – the whistle comes with a problem. A flute has keys, so closing holes as you play is fool-proof: let go of the key and the cap with its pad closes each hole and no air escapes. Perfection itself. But the whistle has no keys, so unless you cover each hole COMPLETELY with the appropriate finger it will – and does – emit horrible screeching noises. And covering each hole completely is harder than you might think, especially with the lower notes.

So now we have these ghastly noises and they have an effect – they increase your stress level. Well, that worked, didn’t it! But we learn to look on the bright side. You can’t win them all, but with practice you can surely win some.