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'The Mortal Maze', a modern thriller set in the Middle East

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Sunday, 28 June 2020

How true are film or television "true stories"?

I've learned through bitter experience that scepticism is required when coming across a movie or a television drama that is "based on a true story". Sadly, many are more fiction than fact, often unnecessarily so.

Some time ago, I wrote a non-fiction book, God's Triangle, which was the result of several years investigating what happened to an Australian great aunt, Florence "Florrie" Cox, after she married, Frank E. Paice, a New Zealand-born Baptist missionary in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). She was someone her family didn't wish to talk about because she was embroiled in a scandal. My investigation revealed that this was not of her making, and that she was a victim not just of her being unknowingly intersex, but because of the social restrictions around the time of the First World War when any discussion of sex-related matters was taboo, particularly in Christian circles.

The book has not made me rich and/or famous, but it sold reasonable well and attracted attention from a number of people in the cinema world who thought it would make a compelling film. I accepted a three-year option for a very modest $1500 from two producers. One I knew well and liked; the other I didn't know but who had the ability to raise development funds from one of the government-sponsored film agencies in Australia. 

My clear understanding was that the screenplay I had been working on over the years would be brought up to production standard, and that once filming was under way and the film was released, I would progressively receive a total of around $250,000. An attractive sum, you will agree. 

The second producer was successful in raising development funds to be spent on her and a script editor. Things began to go wrong when I discovered that this producer had no intention of using my script and was writing one herself, although she had never before written a screenplay. This would have given her two bites at the financial cherry: producer and writer. Worse was to come when I discovered that she had changed the name of the main character for no other reason than she thought the name Florrie was "old fashioned". 

As the film was being presented as a true story, it made no sense to me for Florrie Cox to be called something entirely different, but eventually I won this battle for her real name to be used. 

Despite being told I would get a "co-writer" credit, it was immensely difficult to gain access to the script the producer was creating. On those few occasions when I did see it, I was horrified. It was poorly written, but worse, the emphasis was no longer on the struggle by Florrie and her husband to cope with Florrie's devastating intersex condition. Instead, the emphasis was on the Indian battle for Home Rule, which did not seriously get under way until well after my great aunt's story. Further, the producer displayed an embarrassing ignorance about Baptist missionary behaviour, such as their total objection to alcohol and ballroom dancing. As time progressed, the script became more a work of fiction than of fact. Some scenes bordered on the truly bizarre. 

I am not a "precious" writer. At least I like to think so. I have worked as a journalist for decades and believe in the importance of editors and how they can improve the telling of a story. When I signed the option agreement I was looking forward to seeing a script that sharpened what I had done, Instead, the producer chose to take in her words "a fresh look" by totally ignoring the script that had been worked on for several years by myself and the original producer. 

Of necessity, my script contains dialogue and scenes that have to be imagined, but my intention always was to reflect as accurately as possible the high hopes and deep upsets that must have taken place during Florrie Cox's marriage. I am now writing a novel based on what I discovered in God's Triangle, and I still have hopes that a film will be made. If not, then I would sooner that than have a production that would have been shamefully inaccurate. I will take comfort of sorts from the view of a friend and mentor, an award-winning TV and film director, that the producer's script was so bad it would not have been filmed.

Finally, here is a related article from @Guardian...

"There's a boom in real-life dramas. How do the makers avoid playing fast and loose with the truth?" asks Stephen Moss: https://bit.ly/cinema-TV-accuracy

Paperback, Kindle and ePub copies of God's Triangle are available HERE

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The importance of genealogy

One of my more insensitive friends once told me that genealogical research was akin to train spotting. Rubbish. Family history research requires the instincts of an ace detective and a fascination for knowledge about our historical context. 

Would I have taken such an interest in the causes of the First World War and the horrors it caused had I not learnt that my maternal grandfather, Arthur J. G. Cox, was gassed on the Western Front in 1917? Probably not. Would I have learnt anything about airships if I hadn't discovered that my other grandfather, John S. Richardson, had been chief inspector on the famous R34 airship? No. Would I know anything about the shocking Highland clearances in Scotland if several of my wife’s ancestors not be driven from their homes by greedy land owners anxious to replace people with sheep? Not likely. 

Now tell me what I would have learnt about life if I had spent my days gathering locomotive numbers? Nothing of historical importance.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Genealogy: The complexity of marriages and other sexual relationships

Modern society’s broad acceptance of cohabiting couples and children born out of wedlock is creating a severe headache for genealogists who love to see their ancestors’ families neatly laid out.  

Previous ages, though often dominated by strict church dogma, had more than their share of de facto marriages and births judged to be “illegitimate”, but nothing compares with the present time. 
One of my friends had three marriages and at least two settled cohabiting relationships. Another friend married the same woman twice with a divorce and a 10-year gap between the marriages.  And I know of another man who married the same woman twice with a divorce and another marriage and divorce in between.

These examples of multiple relationships are raising serious challenges for family historians. At what point, for example, does a sexual relationship become formally recognised? Is it when they move in together? When they have been together, say, for a year? When they get married, if they ever do?

It’s a nightmare.

Then there is the related issue of homosexual relationships, both male and female. If a same-sex couple moves into an established relationship, should that become part of the family tree, no matter how messy it might be judged in genealogical terms? I think it should. So, what would I then do if a lesbian relative not only married another woman, but with the aid of artificial insemination, had children? Would I skirt around the subject and write “father unknown”? And finally, what should go on the family tree when a traditional male-female couple have a child whose natural father was a sperm donor?

Questions, questions, questions. But no simple answers.

The book resulting from a story I stumbled across while researching my family history:

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

How Twitter can boost a social campaign

Twitter has a very poor reputation – a reputation that is often well deserved. It can be very nasty; it can be dishonest; it can be boring. But it can also be a powerful tool for good, if used sensibly. I use it as a source of useful and accurate information, doing my best to filter out the rubbish and lies, and as a weapon against local council failures. I also use it with modest success to promote my books and my blog.  In all those cases, It works well for me.

More recently, I offered to help Linda Lawless, a friend and member of my wife’s extended family in Australia boost her campaign to get proper recognition from the Catholic Church that she was secretly fathered by a Catholic priest. After months of agonising, she decided to go public about the discovery she made through a DNA test and agreed to join others in this compelling Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PADNmpeZEeM&t=329s

The ABC uploaded the documentary onto its YouTube channel late last September, but it didn’t attract a great deal of interest, even though the program rated very well when original transmitted in Australia. Between the posting in September last year and January 7this year when I took a special interest, there had been just 4,542 viewings. I began tweeting the link to interested persons and groups, hoping to increase the viewings to, perhaps, 20,000. But Linda’s story obviously captured the imagination of a great many, and when I last checked, more than half-a-million had viewed it, and it was still climbing by many hundreds of viewings each day.

It should be added that Linda’s campaign is not just for herself, but for the many mothers and children around the world who have suffered as a result of priests breaking their vow of celibacy. A great many people have commented on this documentary, and an overwhelming number think that the celibacy rule is at the heart of child abuse and the shame and secrecy surrounding children of priests. But it doesn’t appear that this rule is going to change any time soon, as a Vatican spokesman interviewed in the documentary described priestly celibacy as a “precious gift”. Some gift!

A friend has pointed out that Lord (Roy) Hattersley, once one of the highest-profile politicians in the United Kingdom, was also the son of a Catholic priest -- born in truly scandalous circumstances. The details are HERE.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

A special photograph that escaped being binned

      As a keen genealogist I have many family photographs that I would regard as “special”, but this is one that I wasn’t supposed to see. Nor were any other descendants of the couple who are pictured 
      The couple were my great aunt, Florence “Florrie” Cox, and the Rev. Frank E. Paice, on the day they were married in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in December 1914. 

Both Frank Paice and Florrie Cox were Baptist missionaries from Melbourne, Australia, stationed in the early 1900s in East Bengal, now Bangladesh.  

Their marriage fell apart in scandal for two primary reasons: 1) Frank Paice had fallen for another missionary, Olga Johnston, during the two-year engagement that the church required Florrie and Frank to spend apart. 2) Florrie had a rare variation of the intersex condition, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Although she looked and felt like a woman, she had male chromosomes and no internal female organs. 

When Frank and Olga’s scandalous affair became known, both were forced to resign.  Florrie returned to Melbourne, but was a family embarrassment with the breakdown of her marriage a relentlessly taboo subject.  

The Australian press – normally addicted to such juicy stories – was prevailed upon to look the other way when the divorce went through the Supreme Court and the judge ordered that the file be “closed for all time”.  

Frank and Olga married on their return to Bengal where Frank took up an engineering management job. 

When they returned to Australia some years later, they reinvented themselves as pillars of society, with Frank taking on a number of high-profile civic positions in Melbourne.  No mention was ever made of Frank or Olga’s time in India or their six years as missionaries. Not even their only son and close friends knew of their missionary past. 

I learned of the scandal only because my mother let it slip when we came across a photograph taken just before Florrie was about to depart for her wedding in Calcutta. 

It took me 18 months of email exchanges, letters and telephone calls to get a Supreme Court judge in Melbourne to lift the ban on access to the divorce file, revealing Florrie’s condition. But nowhere could I find photographs of Frank and Florrie’s wedding as they had been destroyed by the family – probably out of embarrassment and anger 
Then I got lucky.  
A very distant cousin showed me a photograph of two people he could not identify. I was stunned to see that it was Frank and Florrie after their wedding at the Circular Road Baptist Chapel, Calcutta.  
My hunt was over thanks to a large dollop of luck, and the fact that the distant cousin's family had never been told about the scandal and didn't realise the photo's significance.  

The story of Florrie Cox and Frank Paice is told in Ian D. Richardson’s book God’s Triangle, available in paperback and ebook: http://www.godstriangle.com/ . 

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Do you die, or pass on?

One of my several obsessions is an objection to the growing use of euphemisms to describe the death of a person. A death is upsetting for close family and friends, but I can't understand what is at all offensive about the word "died". It is what we will all do at some time. We might wish to be immortal, but using euphemisms such as "pass" (as in when did they pass?), "passed", "passed on", "gone to be with our Lord", "gone to their reward", "present with the Lord", "promoted to glory" or even "gone to a better place" can't disguise the truth. Many of those who prefer the euphemisms are members of various religions, but Christianity's King James Bible is certainly not averse to using "died". Indeed, a quick scan shows that it is used 189 times. It even states that Jesus Christ died.

There is nothing inconsistent in using "died" and believing that there is an afterlife. Death is a medical event that must come before a soul or spirit - if such a thing exists - goes on to Heaven or Hell or some other agreeable place, or rejoins previously-deceased family members.

My mother was an enthusiastic Christian who rarely missed church on a Sunday, and although she made careful plans for her funeral and thanksgiving service, she never once to my knowledge used a euphemism to describe what would happen at the end of her life.

An aunt who was an equally committed Christian was adamant that she would "die", and she would have been very upset had she known that the funeral director changed her newspaper death notices from "died" to "passed on".

But it is not just religious believers who prefer to skirt around our departure from this existence. The administrator of a Facebook group to which I belong insists on using "passed on" because it seems to him to be a kinder word than "died". I disagree. There are a great many non-believers who find this not just wrong but bordering on the offensive.

Anyway, I know that at some time - not too soon, I hope - I will die. As a happy atheist, my death will be beginning of what might be termed "eternal sleep". It would be an illogical conceit on my part to believe otherwise. If anything is passed on, it will, perhaps, be through my writing over the years and memories held by my close friends and my descendants. There is, of course, no guarantee that all of this will be flattering.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Travelling Down Under: How to translate Strine, Australia's national language.

The first 30 years of my life were spent in Australia and since moving to London, I have made at least one trip every year to the land of my birth. But despite the frequency of my visits, I am increasingly finding it difficult to understand the language.

 It now seems that most descriptive names in Australia are reduced to words ending in “o” or “ie”.

Over the years I have become  accustomed to “arvo” (afternoon), “tinnie” (can of beer or a small tin boat) , "cossie" (swimming costume) “rellie” or “rello” (a relative) and being referred to as a “journo” (journalist), but what was I to make of a headline in the Australian papers about a man’s leg being chewed off by a “saltie”? 

I found that answer only by reading well down into the story and learning that a “saltie” is a salt water crocodile. I also noted that the man with the chewed leg was in a critical condition in “hossie” (hospital).

On one recent trip, I was challenged by a large illuminated sign over a highway “Have you renewed your rego?” My immediate response was to shout: “Well, I might renew it if I knew what it was”. A friend later enlightened me. “Rego” was short for car registration, the Australian equivalent of the UK’s road tax. 

Some of this word reduction and slang is amusing, and I couldn’t help smiling when I learned some time ago that “carked it” meant that someone had died (i.e. become a carcass). On a recent trip to my homeland several people used "carked" in their conversion, such as "Did you know that old Fred had 'carked' it?" 

I also love the much-used “hoon”, the short form of hooligan, and “rort”, the term most frequently applied to phoney expenses and rip-offs by politicians (“pollies”).

What surprises me is how the slang has been adopted in recent years by Australia’s mainstream media. 

It is common, indeed usual, for Australian newspapers to refer to “firies” (firemen), ambos (ambulance drivers), "fishos" (fisherman) and “schoolies” (drunken end-of-school-year party).

Scanning the Australian papers on the internet the other day I also came across “tradie” (tradesman, such as plumber, electrician and carpenter), “boatie” (someone with a small boat), “yachtie” (a yachtsman) and “servo” (a motor vehicle service station).

And then there are the slang words that pop up in emails and social media postings from my friends (“mates” is preferred) and relatives (sorry, rellos) in "Godzone" (Australia): There is “bowlo” (member of a lawn bowls club), “sando” (sandwich) and “trannie” (no longer a transistor radio; now a transexual). Also, a friend reported that their child had a "tantie" (tantrum).

I received an email from a friend who apologised for failing to "corro" recently. Corro? Yes, of course. That turned out to be the short form for "correspond". He told me that he had been busy with the builders brought in to do some "renos" (renovations).

I recently tore my hamstring in a fall. I received several sympathetic emails from Australian friends in which they referred to my "hammy". 

Finally, I should tell you about a recent email in which a women friend heaped praise on her “gynie”. No doubt, by now, you will have decoded this to be a reference to her gynaecologist.

And how did the Aussie accent come about? Here are some suggestions: