Month: May 2013

Check your facts! Hunt the MacGuffin!

I’ve just finished reading a novel. OK, so it was a historical romance. So sue me…

The premise sounded pretty good – witty, amusing, and fun. The execution, however, let down the premise quite significantly.

Firstly, there was the business of the ring. Everyone was looking for it, but it was never satisfactorily explained why this was. Clearly, the ring proved something about someone to some other people… but what, and how? I was left with the very clear feeling that the ring was, in fact, the most classical example of a MacGuffin I’ve ever come across.

Have you ever read a book like that? You spend most of your time trying to figure out why everyone is running around looking for X, or avoiding X, or doing X, and wondering whether:
a) the author has just missed out massive amounts of plot that would have explained everything (enthusiastic editor, maybe? Word limit?)
b) you are much more stupid than you had hitherto suspected or
c) it’s some kind of zen. What is the meaning of the ring? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Of course, the whole point of romances is for girl to meet boy, girl to lose boy, then girl and boy to get back together again. In that sense, everything other than the relationship is one big MacGuffin. It’s just that I like my MacGuffins to at least make sense. If you’re going to have an espionage plot on the side, do try to have it make sense. (Although see b and c above.) I’m now going to spend the next several days trying to figure out exactly what was going on, and wondering whether I’m wasting my time because even the author didn’t know, so what hope have I got?

Moving on from MacGuffin mania, I’d like to point out that authors who write historical fiction should, occasionally, do some research. Even fantasy authors can’t get away without it, and they get to make up the whole world as well as the people in it (please note: swords are not as heavy as people seem to think they are). Writers of historical novels have a much harder job because some difficult person has already been along and filled in all the background detail.

It really jolts the reader when a relatively important plot point is the existence of a birth certificate that may, or may not, be fake…. in a novel set before the national register of births was started (in 1837). Previous to this, births were registered with the church – usually the local parish church.

Then there was the street urchin with his pockets full of bills. In Britain, a bill is either the sticky-out bit on the front of a duck, or an accounting of monies to be paid. Only in America is it something that you can pay with. In the USA, the first dollar bills were issued in 1862. In Britain, paper money below the value of £5 was not legal tender until the Bank Notes Act 1833 (about ten years after this novel was set). And if a street urchin had a pocket full of £5 notes, that would make him an exceptionally well-off street urchin, given that this would run to thousands of pounds in today’s money. (Actually, I’d think myself quite well off if I had a pocketful of fivers in today’s money…) So unless our street urchin had a pocketful of reckonings (why?), he was either extremely well-heeled or a time-traveller.

These two instances of complete absence of research show a common problem: the author takes things for granted. Like American authors referring to ‘blocks’ as a measure of distance in British cities – Americans think in blocks (authors seem to, anyway); British people don’t. Probably because American cities are usually built on a grid system and British cities aren’t. We don’t think in blocks because we don’t have blocks – at least, not in the mathematical, distance-marking sense. But you’d have to look at a map of a British city to know that, or better yet, visit and discover that the streets bend, curve, and meet each other in unpredictable ways. Blocks designed by Salvador Dali….

But it’s very easy to assume that a thing (like a birth certificate) that is an important staple in your own culture is the same in the one you are writing about. You don’t think about birth certificates: everyone has one. Unfortunately, the only way to avoid introducing gaffes like this is to know enough about your period to have a general ‘sense’ of what’s right and what’s wrong, and where you need to do a bit of fact-checking.


Battle of the Nations… and driving in France

UK Team 1 vs Israel Team !

UK Team 1 vs Israel Team 1

Part of the reason this blog has been really, really quiet over the last week or two is because I’ve been to France with the UK Battle of the Nations team.

Battle of the Nations is the world championship for medieval armoured combat; the UK Team is new – this was our first year! – but we did very well indeed. We entered two teams of five into the 5 x 5 buhurts, and came eighth out of 22 nations, and won the cup for ‘Best Debut Team’.

Off the field, it was a great opportunity to meet fighters and support staff from other nations – we’ve been invited to two events in the USA, which we hope some of us will be able to attend, and also an event in Israel. Much drinking was done (mostly mead) and our flag was stolen, possibly by the Poles (although the Poles said they’d merely stolen it from the Russians, who’d stolen it originally), but we got it back safely.

So now we have to start preparing for next year! And after doing so well this year, the pressure is most definitely on.

I was not fighting this year; I was there as support staff, to mend soft kit and drive the van. Three of us took a van full of armour etc down to Aigues-Mortes in the south of France – from where I live, that proved to be a 21-hour drive, which we did in one straight stretch, taking turns at the wheel and catching as much sleep as we could.

Driving on the continent is not something that I had ever done before, so I learned several things.

  • French people drive on the right. Mostly. (I knew this before I left home, of course…)
  • French toll roads are very expensive, but worth it because the non-toll roads aren’t as good.
  • The expense of the toll roads may be why French drivers tend to drift all over all three lanes of a three-lane road, maybe to make sure they are getting value for money.
  • Some toll stations have a 2m height barrier, which is worrying when your van is taller than that.
  • When you are driving a right-hand-drive vehicle on the right-hand side of the road, you have a big blind spot where you can’t see who is overtaking. This makes joining carriageways exciting.
  • Garmin (at least the one we were using) does not have a function where you can tell it to avoid town centres. Either that, or the Garmin lady is madly in love with Steve, one of the other drivers, because she took us to Paris. Steve says he saw the Eiffel Tower, but by the time Gwilym (driver number 3) and I looked around, it had gone behind a building. Eiffel Tower aside, driving through Paris was also an adventure that we could possibly have done without.
  • Food at French service stations is better than in England, but the toilets are worse.
  • Vending machines have eight types of coffee, but only one type of tea (which is Earl Grey).
  • They switch the fuel pumps off during the night. So if you want to fill up, you have to go to the cash desk and pay in advance. In French. At 2am, having to figure out how much fuel you need, how much this will cost, and how to say this in French is a challenge.
  • French autoroutes do not have lighting. French roundabouts (of which there are many) also do not have lighting. This makes driving in the dark exciting.
  • After several days trying to rearrange what you want to say to fit a (limited) French vocabulary, you start doing it in English as well.

The right to manifest religious belief… what do you really want?

The case of R (on the application of Ghai) v Newcastle City Council [2010] EWCA Civ 59 is one of my favourite cases.

Mr Ghai, a Hindu, wanted his body cremated in accordance with his beliefs, which involved natural fire rather than electricity or gas, and in the open air. The previous decision of the court (Ghai v Newcastle City Council [2009] EWHC 978 (Admin)) had been that due to the provisions of the Cremation Act 1902 and the regulations of 2008, this manner of cremation would be illegal; Ghai therefore lost his case, hence the appeal.

The interesting thing about the appeal is that the judgement is very short, and does not consider whether Mr Ghai’s right to manifest his belief was being curtailed, or whether this would be justified if it was. The Master of the Rolls – admittedly with the advantage of further evidence produced by Ghai – cuts right to the heart of the matter: what, precisely, does Ghai want, and does the law allow it?

The previous case assumed that the only sort of cremation that would satisfy Mr Ghai would be cremation on a truly open site – a bonfire in a field. However, by the time we get to the appeal decision, it has been clarified that what really matters is that the fire should be a wood fire and that sunlight (he should be so lucky, in Britain) should be able to shine on the pyre. These factors can be accommodated within a permanent structure with a hole in the roof, or openings in the walls, and the Master of the Rolls decided that the meaning of ‘building’ within the 1902 Act would include this kind of structure. Therefore, the law permits Mr Ghai to have the kind of cremation that he wants.

The thing that really struck me about this case is that it involved people having to think about what was really important, rather than simply trying to replicate ‘the way we’ve always done it’. The separation, if you like, of the spiritually significant from the customary (or habitual).

Different cultures, as we are all painfully aware, have different ways of doing things that can seem odd, ludicrous, or even perverse, to strangers (and this knowledge has been around for centuries). This isn’t a problem as long as everyone stays at home, but once you have a multicultural society, suddenly everything gets complicated.

The old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” has validity – although it’s not politically correct to say so. There are very few cultures which do not deserve protection – the indigenous culture included. It’s quite hard to identify the ‘indiginous’ English culture because it’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water: for people brought up in it, it’s just ‘the way it is’, and you don’t realise that an activity is an important part of your culture until someone tries to stop you doing it.

But protecting the indiginous culture does not justify squashing incomers’ own beliefs. So some way of making the two (or four, or six, or…) sets of beliefs and customs work in harmony has to be found. And that, I believe, is what we should be aiming for. We should work for harmony, where – as far as possible – everyone can carry on doing what is important to them.

This is difficult. This requires more than the sledgehammer approach of “this is my country: do it my way” or “I am an ethnic/religious/sexual minority so you have to let me do what I want”. Harmony requires actually listening to what the ‘other side’ has to say and, even more difficult, reassessing one’s own beliefs. Harmony requires, sometimes, a compromise.

Mr Ghai is to be admired for reassessing his own beliefs; rather than sticking to his guns and demanding that he be allowed to reproduce exactly the type of funeral that is commonplace in India, or Nairobi (where he came from), he took the trouble to think about which parts of the funeral were spiritually important, and which parts were simply a reflection of the facilities traditionally available. When he reached the conclusion that it was the wood fire and ability for sunlight to fall on the pyre that mattered, suddenly many of the legal obstacles fell away. The end of this case was a win for everyone: Mr Ghai could have a funeral that was consistent with his beliefs (and would incidentally probably be more consistent with weather conditions in the UK), and the sensibilities of the indiginous culture were also respected.

Since the Master of the Rolls did not consider the Humans Rights Act implications, we don’t know what the answer would have been had Mr Ghai not realised that cremation in some type of building could still be consistent with his beliefs. But it is at least possible that completely open-air cremation would still have been judged to be illegal, and that the law was not disproportionate regarding its purpose and its effects – if if that was the case, Mr Ghai would have lost out.

The decision has been criticised as ‘sleight of hand’ and ‘passing the buck’ rather than dealing with the issue of how far public bodies should go in order to cater for the demands/requirements of minority interests. However, I don’t agree: the masterstroke here is realising that there was no need for any change. That a minority interest could be catered for very well under existing regulations, with just a little imagination.

Assuming that accommodating a minority interest must always involve major upheaval is a narrow-minded and rigid view; it treats minorities as ‘alien’ and ‘other’ by assuming that their needs are not in any way the same as the needs as the majority, and always require ‘special’ treatment. Isn’t it more inclusive, as well as easier, to think about similarities and not just differences? To think about what is truly important to each side, and find a new solution to the problem that has something for everyone, rather than try to hammer square pegs into round holes because all you’ve ever had before is square pegs?

Yes, the question of how far public services should be expected to change to meet the demands/requirements of minorities in a plural society is an important one – but surely the answer is “as far as is necessary”. The key being necessary. In this case, major upheaval to the law was not necessary, and that, in itself, is a very important point.

Be imaginative; be collaborative; be willing to talk, to discuss, to challenge old assumptions, and to find new paths. Then we will get away from the idea of the indiginous culture being under some kind of seige by invaders determined to destroy it, or incomers being deliberately kept out in the cold by hostile natives. Then we might finally stop being us and them, and start just being all just different shades of us.