Don’t be Misled by the Trivial Tittle Tattle

There has been something about the recent local furore about a footballer trying to ‘gag twitter’ which has reminded me of the 2006 plagiarism case taken against Dan Brown.

Now this may just be another example of the spaghetti-like nature of my thought processes, but it’s to do with the fact that the substance of the argument really has no intrinsic merit, but the chatter and tittle tattle around it is obscuring the importance of the point at issue.

My level of interest in the activities of a footballer either on or off the pitch is vanishingly small; my support of people who claim that there is a public interest in disclosing stories about them is nil, but I do believe that the question of the impact of super-injunctions is an important one, long overdue for public scrutiny.  It is just unfortunate that the ones we now know about are of such little consequence.

There are apparently many others, about which we may never know anything, but which like the Trafigura one do have a genuine public interest, about an important subject.

And that’s what made me think of Dan Brown.

It was set in Paris wasn't it?

At the outset, I should declare my lack of admiration for Brown’s work.  I did once try to read ‘The da Vinci Code’, but abandoned the attempt just short of half way through, in rather the same way as I’ve never been able to watch more than a couple of episodes of  ’24’.  There was just something about that endless first day that bored me to death.

In 2006 the writers of a non-fiction work called ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’ lost a plagiarism case against Brown in the English High Court.  There were many who were sniffy about his victory, wondering why anyone else would want to lay claim to his awful prose, or such manifestly crackpot theories, when clearly the answer was that there was a great deal of money in it, especially as a movie based on the novel was about to be released.

But leaving aside these ‘Brown specific’ arguments, what the decision did reinforce is that is not possible to claim ownership of ideas.  In order to show infringement of their copyright the non fiction writers had to show Brown had copied substantial amounts both qualitatively and quantitatively from their work.

Being ‘inspired’ by someone else’s idea is not enough to mean that you have copied them.  It’s  up to you to make something new and unique from it.

Although, according to reports, some of the legal basis of the case against Brown was a bit flakey and not well presented, it was a good opportunity to reflect on the way fiction writers can use research, derived from works of non-fiction in their own writing; in the same way as historians might rely on the work of earlier historians for their research, so long as they use” a degree of labour, skill or judgement” in producing their own work, under the law it enjoys protection as an original work.

You only have to think of the huge variation on responses produced by a group of writers when presented with the same prompt to understand that everyone can use the same information to produce very different results; very few people would, in those circumstance accuse each other of copying, because it is both the similarities and differences in the work which are most interesting about those situations.

So, just for today, before being taken in by the tawdry tittle tattle of something in the papers, consider that there may be another way of looking at it.

Science Fiction at the British Library

I’m a bit ashamed to admit how long it took me to realise what a great place the British Library is.  With miles of subterranean book shelves and underground trains to move the volumes around, I had thought it was a place reserved for academics and studious people with really serious reasons to want to read difficult to find books.

And indeed there are plenty of people there like that, people with more important things on their minds than brushing their hair or co-ordinating their outfits, but there are also lots of other people there too.  Ones like me who appear to prefer the surroundings of the cafes to those of the reading rooms.  Because it’s a place where it is perfectly acceptable to show up on your own, find a comfortable spot, either inside or out, and settle down for as long as you like with a book, a laptop or a notebook.

Perched in my preferred corner of the outside café, I’ve overheard discussions of PhD theses, lesson plans, and on one unfortunate occasion when I was accidentally in the middle of the first actual meeting of some new virtual friends on a new parenting website, the perils of breastfeeding.

I’ve started to think of it as my London club, the place I go to when I’ve some time to kill between meetings, or when I want to do some writing away from my desk.

In a permanent exhibition it is possible to view, amongst many other precious pieces, the Magna Carta or the Sherbourn Missal, and wonder at the ancient penmanship and extraordinary detailed illuminations and, if you’re so inclined, to listen to learned explanations of the objects that put them in their historical context.

At the moment they are staging an additional exhibition  Out of this World, Science Fiction, but not as You Know it.  And what a fascinating examination of Science Fiction in all its manifestations it is.

I would never have described myself as a lover of SciFi; I’m not that interested in tales of alien worlds or monsters destroying civilisation, but I did grow up in the 1960s so some of my earliest memories of television are of hiding behind the settee when the Daleks were on ‘Dr Who’. And later, I too, wondered what it would be like to be beamed up by Scotty, and wished we had anti matter engines producing warp factor speeds on tedious car journeys.

But apart from reading ‘The Day of the Triffids’ at school, I would have said that I’d not read any science fiction.

This exhibition showed me how wrong I was, how narrow had been my definition and my thinking on the subject.  Any book set in an imaginary land, or with an imaginary technology or political system can fall into the broad church.  Margaret Atwood calls it ‘speculative fiction’ when she writes about a possible future world in which few people survive the coming of an ecological disaster in her novels ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’.

And I realise I’ve read quite a bit of that.

In one section of the exhibition various writers are interviewed on what for them makes SciFi and distinguishes it from other genres.  One suggested that it differed from fantasy in that in SciFi you could make one leap, one flight of fancy, but from there, everything had to be logically consistent.  Most stories then flow from observing the drama of human characters dealing with the environment into which they are thrust.  The future depicted is always a construction from images of the contemporary present and past.

So far from being about technology, most SciFi is about the human condition; and it usually reflects the concerns of the period in which it is written.  In Victorian times, it was all about adventure and discovery and the perils that might be encountered: Jules Verne going to the centre of the Earth or HG Wells exploring time travel.

In my youth, the worries were about totalitarianism and the end of the world in a nuclear war, so I was given ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ by Orwell and ‘On the Beach’ by Nevil Shute to read at school.

Now the fear is more that the world will die a lingering death from man made causes, through some ecological disaster or some slowing of fertility, so we see books like Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ matching the ascendancy of fundamentalist religion and infertility in a tightly controlled society, or PD James’ ‘Children of Men’ in which the years after the last baby was born a pregnant woman holds the only hope for survival of the species.  In Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, the post apocalyptic environment is used as a setting for the examination of the nature of fatherly love.

As well as the books on display and the story of the various themes that have been covered over the history of the genre there are amusing props and the obligatory Tardis, as well as the opportunity to draw your own alien to be added to a digital archive.

According to a Philip K Dick quote ‘Reality is that bit that refuses to go away when I stop believing it.’

It’s all fiction. It’s fun and it’s free.

Just wandering and wondering……

Water – A Photo

After an unusually dry Spring that has had Kent farmers appearing on the news bemoaning the dry dust in their fields and plums withering on the tree, it rained on Thursday in London.  It wasn’t just any rain either, it was proper big rain, a thunderous shower that pounded on the roof and collected in great puddles over blocked roadside drains.

I had the misfortune to get caught in it, even going as far as seeking shelter under a tree in the park, although I think I was as wet from the water bouncing up off the ground as that falling from the sky.  Once soaked there was little point in worrying if it rained any more……

But almost as quickly as it collected on the ground, as soon as the rain eased the water disappeared, so that by the time I got to the station only a few puddles remained.

So on the theme of rain….here’s a rainbow over Loch Long taken from Cove Park, ‘Water, water everywhere….’

Home Tourist

I was in Westminster on Wednesday to meet a friend who lives nearby, and as I was a bit early I walked down from Leicester Square.  It’ a part of London I know well, and am often in a hurry to get somewhere when I’m there; and it’s very easy to become extremely irritated by all the people taking photos, strolling aimlessly and generally getting in my way.

Instead, I decided to join them, and walked through Admiralty Arch to see The Mall decorated for the State Visit of the Obamas.  It is one of the moments that made me reflect what a beautiful city London can be, and how well it brushes up for the big occasion.

I only had the camera on my phone with me so it’s not a great shot, but I did walk to the middle of the road in rush hour traffic to take it, but more so that I could actually see the overall effect of the flags amid the trees leading up the vista towards the Palace.

I’d caught the end of President Obama’s address at the Palace of Westminster on the television before leaving home; I’d not intended to watch it, but there was something about the manner in which he was speaking that hooked me.  In many ways the message was of ideals rather than plans or ideas, and there was quite a lot to argue with in the post facto justification of the actions in Libya, but he is an incredibly charismatic speaker.

The audience in the hall sat in transfixed silence as he delivered a preacher’s message, full of rhetorical pauses, and carefully cadenced and structured phrasing.

It’s a class act, even if I can’t agree with everything he says, I’m glad there is someone who uses language so well and poetically speaking.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve found myself looking at the photos of the Obamas in the press and admiring what a great looking couple they are.  In group shots Barak Obama’s smile is dazzling, the Queen looks tiny, and Prince Charles rather raddled; Michele Obama looks tall, athletic and elegant and the new Duchess  looks like a fawn stick.

It’s an incredible powerful subliminal message, about image, but I find that I am able to take much more pride in the way the city has hosted this event than in the over the top pageantry of the wedding last month.  Both are symbolic ceremony, but this had less of the heritage soap opera about it.

As an avid fan of The West Wing I was very excited to see a vehicle, presumably for second or third level backup staff, with a ‘FLOTUS’ sign in the window while I was waiting to cross the road, if only to have confirmed that they do actually use that acronym in real life.

I became very ‘method’ in my adoption of the role of tourist and took quite a few photos.

I’m often surprised from how many places it is possible to see the London Eye.

There are always lots of people about staring up at the clock, and instead of ducking out of their way tutting a bit, this time I joined them just as Big Ben was striking 6. (It doesn’t really lean…..)

Only the usual level of security remained by the time I went by.  We’ve become used to all these barriers and obstacles in front of government buildings, and now take them as part of the landscape.

Only the tail end of the press were still colonising College Green (with the obligatory orange suited protesters).

Special and Essential

Would you rather be ‘special’ or ‘essential’?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering since Barak Obama and David Cameron declared that the relationship between the UK and the US is no longer ‘special’, but is now ‘essential’.

According to one analyst on the news, in the ‘special’ period the was the risk of the impression that Britain was a bit desperate, and begging to be reassured that we were important to America, whereas in this new age of the essential, it is a more grown up period of interdependency.

Nick Robinson, the BBC political editor suggested that we think about this semantic difference in the context of a long term personal relationship.  ‘Special’ is the adjective for the first flush of a romance, ‘essential’ comes with age and experience and a pragmatic lessening of emotion.

All this smacked to me of words games, so, of course, I consulted my dictionary.

‘Special’ denotes something of a particular kind, peculiar, not general, or for a particular purpose, or exceptional in amount or degree or intensity.


‘Essential’ means of, or constituting, a thing’s essence, indispensable, or exceedingly important.


It seems there is a comparative element to specialness, whereas the essential is something that is inherent; something that you have to have whether you want it or not.

Or maybe, sometimes you want something that little bit special, but you’ll always need the essential.

I guess both could describe something good or something bad; something especially unpleasant or a necessary evil.

So looked at objectively, dictionary in hand, it just looks like a bit of rebranding, like when they changed the name of ‘Snickers’ to ‘Marathon’, and Opal Fruits to something that I keep forgetting, condemning me to receiving patronising stares from the trainee at the hairdressers  when I say that the shampoo smells a bit like them.

Let’s hope it’s successful and not like the rechristening of the Post Office to Consignia, before being expensively changed back, or that period when British Airways painted each of its aircraft with a different design, confusing everyone.

Operation Mincemeat and Character Creation

Operation Mincemeat was a programme on the BBC about a top secret operation during the Second World War, the objective of which was to fool the Germans that the Allied invasion in 1943 would be into Greece, rather than the real target of Sicily.

‘The corkscrew thinkers’ of counter intelligence came up with the plan of planting a dead body in the ocean just south of Spain with fake and misleading documents on him, which would hopefully land up in the hands of the Germans.

The programme detailed the difficulties of finding the right kind of dead body that might fool a pathologist into believing it had been killed by ditching in the sea from a crashing aircraft, of clothing it in a time of extreme clothing rationing, and fitting it out with all the bits and pieces that would lead the people who found it that it was really what it purported to be.

Some members of the team involved, now very elderly ladies, were interviewed for the programme, and they described the competition to have something of theirs on the body.  One supplied a photograph to be ‘Pam’, the fictional girlfriend of William Martin, the fictional officer, another addressed the envelope for the fake despatches, and her pride that  her handwriting was in the briefcase attached to the body was still evident.

The photograph and love letters from Pam, written by the strait-laced head secretary, were part of what they described as ‘wallet litter’.  In gathering this ‘litter’, including cinema ticket stubs and identity cards, the chief planner of the scheme apparently became so obsessed, he began to almost believe that he was William Martin, even to the extent of making advances on the girl who had supplied the photo of Pam, and calling her by the made up name.

The historical analysis suggests that it was the care and conviction with which the team had created the fiction that determined the success of the operation.  They had created an entirely credible fictional character out of bits and pieces.

There is a lesson in that for all of us trying to create believable characters for our fiction.  Maybe it’s a cliché to suggest that we need to know what the character has in his pockets; but if it is, it’s because it’s true.

A young soldier would have a girlfriend, and he would keep her photo and letters close; on leave he’d take her to the pictures.  These days he’d have other things as well; his iPod, his sunglasses, chewing gum, whatever. Tim O’Brien’s short story ‘The things they carried’ almost provides the definitive example of how much depth and complexity ‘stuff’ can reveal.

But the art is in finding the key detail that reveals the internal life of a character to both creator and reader.  It is similar to the way some actors say they can only see their character once they know what kind of shoes they wear, or what kind of nose they have.

As the creator of fiction the writer needs to know these and many other details.  You may not necessarily use them all, and believe me I know the pain of discarding valuable words when the  details so slavishly worked out prove not to be needed; but it’s all part of the building process.  And why not start with the shoes?

And Then To Cap It All …..

I had an odd sort of a day on Friday.

But in the spirit of attempting to prove that everything provides ‘material’, let me see if I can turn it into an amusing little anecdote.

I should have known that things might not turn out at planned as soon as I realised I’d left the flat without my phone.  I’m not entirely dependent upon the thing, and can manage for quite long periods without ever using it, but on Friday there were some potential uncertainties in my arrangements to meet my friend R, so I knew I had to go back for it.

By then, I’d missed the 13:07 train, so strolled to the station to catch the 13:27.  Just as I arrived at the station I noticed I’d already got a ladder in my tights.  Even though I might be the only person to notice, knowing it was there made me feel less than well turned out, on a day when I was theoretically dressed to impress.

If anyone knows where to buy a pair of tights around Hays Galleria, perhaps they could let me know.  (Next doesn’t count as they seem to sell only ‘one size’, as in ‘one size will never fit anyone’, especially not someone over 5’12.)

After my business meeting, which was a little odd and on not on the topic I had been anticipating, I took the train to Richmond; an entirely new experience for me that came out of one of those conversations with friends about how we are all stuck in our own little ruts and there are so many things in and around London that we’ve never even tried.

I was early to meet R so I wandered around Richmond for a few moments in search of a pub, and sat outside with a late afternoon glass of cold pinot grigio,  pondering life the universe and everything, and, finally, no longer worrying about the rip in my tights.

We went to see ‘Autumn and Winter’ at the Orange Tree Theatre.  It is by Lars Noren, a Swedish playwright, with a  grim view of families.  Set just as the food is finished at a family dinner hosted by the parents of two adult daughters, polite conversation quickly develops into a wine fuelled emotional slugfest where old wrongs and misremembered realities are used to batter each person in turn.

The performances were tremendous, and in such a tiny theatre, where the audience members in the front row have to watch where they put their feet in case they trip up the actors, I was transfixed by their concentration and conviction.  But at an hour and 45 minutes with no interval, they left me both physically and emotionally  numb, and mentally beaten up.

We wandered out of the theatre a little punch drunk and subdued, as  I girded myself to the journey home to North London, in my first experience of the Richmond to Stratford train service.  I was early for the 21:55 which left on time.

All was going well until we got to one of the Hampstead stations when a ‘signal failure’ was announced.  By this time, the train was fairly full, and I was surrounded by a group I decided were boyfriend/girlfriend and their respective mothers, down visiting from the north somewhere for the weekend.

I tried to block out the inanity of their conversation, which at one point was about the collective words for things (a gaggle of fools?), by concentrating on my book.  The girl of the group was slouching next to me, her legs crossed, one foot swinging in the air.  It was like having a strobe light in my peripheral vision.  Closing my eyes was the only way to escape it.

This would have been a nice place to be instead.

My attempts to imagine myself somewhere else were interrupted by the conductor announcing that he didn’t think the train would be going any further and we should think about trying to find alternative routes.

With some trepidation, and not entirely sure where I was, I left the station and was plunged into the swirling mass of ‘merry youth’ that inhabits the environs of Camden Town at 11:15 of a Friday night.

The first bus that came was so full it was impossible to get on.  Finally after a quarter of an hour or so I was able to squeeze onto one.

Even in a jammed bus it’s amazing how quickly a space can form when someone drops an open can of lager on the floor.

I should have never stood next to him; he was one of those bleary eyed unshaven habitually drunk looking people, leaning in a corner, not quite able to hold his head up.  But hindsight is perfect when you’ve just been doused in beer.

When I was waiting for the Tube at Finsbury Park everyone gave me a wide berth; I would have too.  The place was packed as an earlier failure of the Victoria Line had evidently just cleared delivering hundreds of people to change onto the Piccadilly platform, but I had my own little invisible cordon around me.  I tried to look as if I didn’t know I smelt like a pub.

I finally got home just as the midnight chimes from Big Ben were on the radio.

The tights went straight into the bin outside.

Other people’s snaps

Sitting beside the river

Do you ever wonder what happens when you’re caught in other people’s holiday photographs?  When they get home, do they tell their friends ‘this would have been a great shot if only that woman would have moved out of the way.’?

Yesterday afternoon I spent a half hour or so sitting on the stepped terrace area outside City Hall, the office of the Mayor of London.  It’s a good spot for people watching, one of my favourite occupations.  It’s by the river with a view of the City of London’s skyline, including the Gherkin, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast.  As such it’s a tourist magnet, and many of them strolled passed me as I sat there, watching them.

Even though it’s prime tourist territory, it’s also a high density business area, as there are a number of large glass clad buildings occupying the area between London Bridge Station  and City Hall; and once the shard is completed there will be more.  But in the mid afternoon of a Friday there was little evidence of the hundreds of workers who presumably occupy the glass floors above where I was sitting.

Nearly everyone I saw stopped to take a photograph, or twenty. A favourite shot seemed to be to pose pushing or leaning against the black egg shaped sculpture that balances at a hard to believe angle in the centre of the esplanade area.  But the urge to photograph clearly doesn’t stop there.  And I’m fairly sure I’m in quite a few of the shots, looking like a refugee from an office.

Of course, as a Londoner, I rarely think about taking photographs of the sites around me.  Don’t get me wrong, I do look at them, and marvel at my good fortune to live in a place which has so many extraordinary vistas; but taking pictures of familiar things is something I don’t often think about.

I should think I’ve as many, if not more, photographs of Tokyo, where  I have spent a week, than Moscow, where I lived for over 2 years.  I suppose you think you’ll always be able to see the sites when you live somewhere, but there’s an urgency in capturing the image if you’re a short term visitor.

I’ve photos in which strangers feature in the background, and sometimes I’m happy for the ‘local interest’ they add; other times, quite the contrary.

I frequently find myself stepping out of the way of people taking each others photos outside Westminster or on the Millennium Bridge, but on Friday there was no avoiding being in many shots, I fear.  Hopefully I’m local colour rather than the annoying woman who wouldn’t get out of the way.

Tiny – a Photo

Is there an absolute measure for size?  Or is everything relative?

I resist the idea of finding a photograph of a really small thing to respond to this weeks prompt.

Instead, here is a photo of ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao.  The scale of the sculpture of a spider with extraordinary long legs dwarves the people walking underneath it; and you can only appreciate its size by seeing it juxtaposed with the human form, the proportions of which you have an instinctive understanding.

The title for the work seems to me to be paradoxical, as a giant spider is the stuff of nightmare rather than the comfort of maternal care, although I have read that for Bourgeois it is an image of a vulnerable creature trying to protect its precious load of eggs.

Maman by Louise Bourgeois

Launched on the topic of motherhood though, here is my own more traditional image of my mother and me at my Christening when I was only a tiny baby.

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