Seeing is not necessarily believing

Cartoon RatI had a post half-written, and then life got in the way (as it does). Then this happened…

The Independent and the Telegraph (among others) report that a giant rat has been found near a children’s playground in Hackney. The article has a picture of the monster rodent being held up by the chap who found it. The Telegraph speculates that this might be a cane rat – which apparently do grow to huge size – and that they might be breeding in London’s sewers. [Scream!]

And then, the Guardian also reports on the giant rat, which, it seems, is not as giant as all that. It’s all to do with your perspective, according to the chap the Guardian journalists spoke to. The Guardian article also features a “giant orange fox”, photographed in their very own offices, in case of doubt. Basically, if you hold out an object such as a rat (to take an example totally not at random) in front of you on a stick and get your mate to take a photo from the right angle, it looks as though the common-or-garden rat you’ve got is actually a huge monster rat.

As the Guardian (rather smugly) says, this is why you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Journalistic standards have obviously sunk; one expects this kind of thing from red-top tabloids, but not from the Independent and the Telegraph (as far as I can tell, The Times has preserved a dignified – or lucky – silence). One might speculate that the growth of web 2.0, and the ability of everyone and his brother to stick news up on the internet has meant that real journalists have to make sure they get their news in quick while it’s still news, and before they get scooped by some bloke on Facebook. More expert people than I have written about this problem – journalists, even from ‘reputable’ news sources, leap on a rumour and report it as fact, or with minor hedging-words like ‘reportedly’ or ‘claiming’ – and thus people are deceived.

And that’s being charitable, and putting the misinformation down to carelessness, and not self-interest and malice. The overall standard of reporting on certain hot-button topics like immigration, Europe and human rights can’t be put down to just journalistic ignorance. If it was ignorance, surely there ought to be a few reasonably intelligent journalists out there who would learn from prior mistakes and get better at it. But reporting standards have been awful for years, so it must be on purpose. Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister, got so fed up with the poor standard of human rights reporting by journalists that he founded Rightsinfo, which exists to give people the real facts. With pretty graphics.

I find it depressing, personally. Journalists are very keen to jump up and down about their journalistic privileges being infringed – but they seem to forget that their privileges as regards information gathering and dissemination are in exchange for being the source of information the public relies on. If they are not doing their job properly by giving us reliable information, why should they have privileges?

Of course, I might be wrong. The Independent and the Telegraph might have it right: after all, Sherlock Holmes knew about this stuff. The Giant Rats of Sumatra are obviously alive and well and living in Hackney…

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.