Last post sequel: Turing and the Truth

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I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. So, given that this is my third post in just over two days, you might think I have resolved to post more, but that’s not the case. Inspiration has met opportunity.

Since my last post, on the film The Imitation Game and the parallels between Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde, I have participated in a somewhat feisty exchange of views on Facebook with a military historian. Perhaps arguing on Facebook is fairly pointless; nevertheless, it provided me with an interesting diversion from some otherwise mundane tasks. For a little while.

My historian friend took exception with The Imitation Game for several reasons and I won’t bore you with them here–suffice to say that he does not consider the film to be an accurate historical record. Now, he has a point there and I am happy to concede it. Five minutes on the internet will probably reveal a more precise account of the events of Bletchley Park and Mr Turing.

I consider his vehemence interesting for a couple of reasons and I thought I would explain them here. Firstly, I made it clear in our exchange that the film is An Entertainment. I even used capital letters to reinforce the importance of this. It tells A Story–and a very engaging, challenging, well crafted one at that. And I use the word ‘crafted’ deliberately. I don’t deny that facts are important but I will argue that facts and the truth are not one and the same. My Facebook quarry and I saw the same film, but have taken very different truths from it.

So then I arrive at this issue: what obligation do films that are ‘based on a true story’ have to a commonly accepted, reasonably accurate version of the truth? If the makers of The Imitation Game had attempted to stay close to actual events, they would have made a very different film–one that, perhaps, I would not have enjoyed nearly as much. We all know how World War Two ended–countless films, of very mixed quality, have revisited this era. Turing’s work (and that of his team) shortened it by approximately two years. Turing was a homosexual when this was illegal. On their own, aren’t these facts a little bit bland?

But in the hands of the film makers, and of Benedict Cumberbatch, they become something tragic, compelling, provocative, enduring. I go to the movies for those truths–not an ocean of facts. It is entirely feasible that someone will see The Imitation Game and be inspired to learn more, and then the film will have done its job.

Finally, films manipulate us. Lots of texts manipulate us. We can choose whether or not we want to be manipulated but part of the joy of cinema for me is opening up to that experience–saying, I want to be moved by this story! I want to laugh and cry and think about this film again in a week!

Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion. Everyone is entitled to judge a film according to their whims. But when it comes to a good story, it is absolutely necessary at times to dispense with facts if they get in the way. If people know how to think critically, they will ask all the right questions in response.

For another film recommendation that will get you thinking and arguing, please see Gone Girl. I have not read the novel but I have finally decided that the film is very good. It took me a while.

Thanks for reading.

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Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing and the Ridiculous Gift of Genius

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I never saw a man who looked / So wistfully at the day…

(Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol)

So I think I managed to miss an entire year on the Frog, apart from dealing with some rather indecorous comments. Apparently some people don’t like it when you decide that a book is crap after the first five pages. And here I am now, posting twice on the same day. It’s no coincidence that I have the next few weeks off on Summer holidays.

Yesterday I had the privilege of watching a film called The Imitation Game.  Spoiler Alert!  If you aren’t aware, it deals with Alan Turing’s efforts to crack the German Enigma code during World War 2, housed in a former radio factory at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. Turing is played beautifully by Benedict Cumberbatch, in one of those performances where the actor disappears completely, as arguably an actor always should. Turing, as portrayed in the film, was quite the eccentric; today he would no doubt be considered autistic (“on the spectrum”, in the parlance of the teaching fraternity). He was a gifted mathematician with a very limited capacity to make or sustain friendships; one of the funniest scenes in the film is one in which he attempts to become friends with the other members of his team at Bletchley, most of whom despise him. This attempt involves giving them all an apple, and then telling a joke rather badly.

The most moving scene is perhaps the one that occurs the morning after they manage to crack the Enigma code. Their jubilation at doing so is quickly contrasted by the realisation that they can’t tell anyone, or else the Germans would know and they would reset Enigma and years of work would be wasted. And so, with their full knowledge, lives will continue to be lost.

Alan Turing lived with a secret during all of this: he was homosexual. This was eventually discovered in the early 1950s and he was charged with indecency and chemically castrated (as an alternative to spending two years in prison, an option Cumberbatch’s Turing could not entertain). Eventually he committed suicide in 1954 and the film is not subtle in suggesting that the drugs used to castrate him also gave him something like Parkinson’s Disease, affecting (among other things) his highly cherished mental acuity.

So I couldn’t help but think of poor old Oscar Wilde, who suffered a similar fate (although he served his time in Reading Gaol; the chemical option perhaps wasn’t  available at the turn of the twentieth century). From memory, Oscar chose to defend himself and arguably he had a fool for a client. It’s also interesting to consider how relatively recently we’ve abandoned our Judeo-Christian distaste for The Love that Dare not Speak Its Name and that now the argument rages (in my little corner of the world at least) over whether or not men and women in same-sex relationships should be allowed to marry.

There are very few direct comparisons between Wilde and Turing; they were both eccentric in different ways, and homosexual, but that’s probably about it. They also possessed singular gifts which have contributed significantly to the world since their respective deaths. Wilde’s incarceration even inspired one of his famous poems, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, passages of which I memorised in Years 11 and 12. “Each man kills the thing he loves / yet each man does not die. / He does not die a death of shame / on a day of dark disgrace…”

Some subtitles at the end of the film reveal that cracking Enigma possibly shortened World War Two by up to two years, saving countless lives; yet it remained a secret for the next fifty years. And in 2013, Turing was posthumously awarded a Royal Pardon by Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his enormous contribution to the war effort. With Oscar we have the enduring legacy of his work–the sublime comedy of his plays, his wit, his embrace of aestheticism. With both men, we have a reminder that genius often has a price. People who don’t fit the pattern are difficult, perhaps–to work with, to live with, to endure. But endure them we should. Almost certainly, they will have something to offer us that is beyond our immediate understanding. I’ll leave the last word to Oscar, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Thanks for reading.

And strange it was to see him look
  So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
  Had such a debt to pay.



2014 in Verse

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Commissioned by the ABC and read on ABC Local Radio in national syndication, Thursday January 1 2015.

THIS POEM WAS GROWN IN A LAB

And again we approach the revolving door
Step out of one year with another before
Relaxing with promises to be made or broken
Wondering what each sunrise has in store;

And at this time we should pause for a tick
And ponder the rigours of poor old St Nick.
The most popular item under trees last year
Was that insidious device, the selfie stick.

And we were all appointed to Team Australia
Though without uniforms or much regalia.
And despite what I’m sure we’re his best intentions,
The captain has so far been rather a failure.

While I’m here, I must take a punt.
Our erstwhile leader is kind of a … runt.
There’s no better question in evidence of this –
Than, when is a shirtfront not a shirtfront?

But lovers of words received god sends.
Additions to language knew no ends;
(And Flanagan became our new laureate!)
He’d love the (pain in the) assonance of “efficiency dividends”.

Reconciliation is on the agenda
Though Tony might have to return it to sender
Until he realises, by truth or by toil,
That white men were not the first on this soil.

And science continued to take great leaps,
Landing cameras on comets and sending back beeps
Penises will soon be grown in a lab
An upstanding contribution, though it gives me the creeps…

There’s no science in Canberra, I’m sorry to say
And very few women at the end of the day
And if budget cuts keep showing scientists the door
We may have to outsource science to the poor.

Our national curriculum was thoroughly reviewed
With the intellectual rigour of a dwarf in the nude
The results were sadly unsurprising
But rightly, to his exit, Barry Spurr was booed.

So what lies ahead, we breathlessly ask?
And whatever it is, are we up to the task?
Can we keep our optimism afloat?
Can we continue to hold up our mask?

It’s easy these days to start feeling blue;
You don’t know where to stand about what you can do
But simple messages are the most profound:
So if it’s ever necessary, # I’ll ride with you.

Jerilderie and John Safran: Staying out of the Way

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So it’s nearly Christmas. I don’t have much to say about Christmas; my kids love it so it’s good to make them happy but mostly I find it all a bit crass. So let’s move on.

This morning I finished reading John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi, a true crime account of the murder of a white supremacist named Richard Barrett by a black man, Vincent McGee. The book is an exhaustive account of Safran’s efforts to get to the bottom of what happened and, if you like Safran’s “nerdy enfant terrible” routine, it’s a ripper. He befriends McGee and ‘buys’ a good deal of his story after the man has been incarcerated for at least three decades. If you aren’t a Safran fan or are not familiar with his television work, you might find it something of a chore. However, what carries the book (I think) is his boyish excitement at getting caught up in both the investigation of the main players in the story, and the writing of the book. He makes no attempt, it should be noted, to keep himself out of the story.

Recently I completed preparing a unit of work for English teachers, as part of the Reading Australia project, on Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter. This text eluded me for some time– I had no idea how it approach the task of developing teaching or learning experiences evolving from it. It would seem to be written down more or less as it was dictated by Ned–most experts seem to agree that Kelly Gangmate Joe Byrne was the scribe–so it lacks formal sentence structure, grammar, punctuation. It is, as a text, somewhat chaotic for this reason. However, it is Ned’s story (or at least his version of events) in his own words, and for that reason it has a clearly defined cultural and historical significance.

Not long after I finished the Unit I picked up a Kelly hatchet job, The Kelly Gang Unmasked by Ian Macfarlane. I’ve read about five pages of this book and already it bugs the shit out of me. Why? Because it seems clear that Macfarlane made up his mind about Ned long before he wrote the book, so everything in it is therefore filtered through that prejudice. It’s laden with value judgements and therefore does not represent either good historical writing, or an interesting ‘true crime’ account. From the top of page 9: “Of course, Ned was fibbing as usual.” It’s the ‘as usual’ that I have a problem with, and goes to the heart of what I fear will be a tedious problem with this book. I may persevere with it. Of course, the Ned Kelly is open to different interpretations along the “Hero or Villain?” line so I’m okay with Macfarlane telling he wasn’t saint; I wish he’d been a bit more objective about it.

So how does all this come together? I’m interested in writers putting themselves in the way of their work, I suppose; placing themselves in the middle of their own stories. Without giving too much away, Safran directly involves himself in McGee’s personal affairs at the end of his book. Arguably, Ned Kelly reinvents himself somewhat in The Jerilderie Letter; he seeks in it to exonerate himself, especially, from the murders of the three policemen at Stringybark Creek in 1878. Macfarlane would seem happy to allow his biases to inform the presentation of his subject. Each writer is, in his own way, seeking to arrive at one or more truths. I am interested also in the difference between truth and fact. The rather dull cliche is that the facts should never get in the way of a good story, and certainly a writer’s role may involve either inventing or manipulating facts to suit narrative purposes.

It’s interesting to consider, perhaps, the innate relationship between narrative and truth, then. It is relatively easy to determine the facts of a situation (although some contest here is still possible, especially with regard to Ned Kelly) but facts only really become worthwhile when we imbue them with some sort of truth (which is usually subjective). On their own, facts are somewhat forensic, clinical; they need writers to give them shape and colour.

We might not necessarily like those shapes or colours, as readers; but that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

 

 

 

One Day: Coda

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I’m still processing the experience of participating in One Day Ten; the performances on Saturday night were interesting for their diversity and the variations in voice, style, genre. As I’d hoped, Catch Me was lifted to another level in performance; my script became something else again, not quite unexpected perhaps but different and better for it.

I may one day actually throw myself out of a plane with a parachute on my back, and after counting to ten I might pull the ripcord; I will hope, no doubt, that when I do the chute will open and all will be well. So the other night I climbed to some altitude and threw myself out of the plane and, thankfully, the parachute seems to have opened. It was exhilarating. I described it to someone as a rush; I think the fact of knowing that an audience would be seeing my play added somehow to the adrenalin. I love writing letters to the editor for exactly the same reason–someone might read it! Someone will actually Read My Words!

In hindsight, I mused to myself yesterday, I think I tried to do a bit too much with the script; it covered an awful lot of ground in barely ten minutes. I’ll chalk that up as a rookie’s mistake, the result of a kid at Christmas waking before his parents and getting to open all his presents in something of a frenzy.

On the way out of the theatre the other night, a friend of mine asked me: “Where did that come from?” This is a question that real writers probably hate, I think; I’m tempted to say, somewhat facetiously, “Well, the ideas shop had a sale on…” It’s like asking a doctor–gee, how do you make people better? It’s just so clever! The truth is (and this is the Big Secret, folks) that I really don’t know where it came from. It emerged from a synthesis of experiences, ideas, questions, emotions, Ave Maria, passions, toast and a few cups of coffee. And a love of writing dialogue. And the Sartre quote I cited in my previous post. All of that and the fact that the clock was ticking, ever louder.

When I emailed the script in I commented that it wasn’t the most cheerful piece of theatre One Day will ever stage, or has ever staged; I blamed Christos Tsiolkas for this, as I finished reading Barracuda last week. A difficult book to enjoy for lots of reasons, but I was captivated by it in that voyeuristic way; writers like Tsiolkas hold up the mirror and defy you to look away. What’s in the mirror is very often unpleasant.

I tried to do that with Catch Me. I hoped get to do it again next year. I’ve already started thinking…

One Day on the Island, Part Two

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This post follows on from one I wrote almost exactly twelve months ago, where I railed against those who denigrate The Island as a backwater without recognising the depth and diversity of artistic talent that exists here. This year, to my delight, Mudlark Theatre (in the person of the utterly fabulous Stuart Loone) invited me to write for One Day Ten and I thought I would document the process.

9.04pm

So the countdown began just over an hour ago. I have a stimulus, a director (Nicole Lewis), an item of set and a cast of three–Matt Taylor, Caitlin McCarthy and Natalie Reid.

One Day Ten the stimulus

This is the stimulus; a Rorschach inkblot. Everyone I have shown it to thinks it looks like a vagina. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to think when you see these things? I’ve actually decided that this leaves the wrting brief fairly open; anything could be read into this. That’s a good thing.

My set item is a mannequin, painted stark white, which can come into two pieces or (apparently) together as a humanoid shape. Without a head.

So I have to beaver away now and have a ten-minute script for three actors finished by about 5 am in the morning. Ideas are coming…

One Day script beginning

9.59 pm

Listening to Ave Maria. My play has three characters: the Man, the Child and The Mother. It is about grief and it is not about grief; grief is something of motif in my work. It underscores, perhaps subtly, my novel The Blue Cathedral and I explore it in poems like ‘Cigarette’ and ‘What is a Road’. Grief is fascinating.

Sartre: “A cry of grief is a sign of the grief which provokes it, but a song of grief is both grief itself and something else.”

10.20 pm

Okay–listened to Ave Maria twice and most of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor. Hooray for YouTube. Probably edging into procrastination territory now though. Time to knuckle down.

11.49 pm

Catch me first draft

About half way through the first draft. Not gone quite where I thought it would but it’s shaping up very nicely. The challenge with such a short script–only ten minutes of performance–is to serve the twin masters of economy and clarity while somehow retaining a sense of the throughline. So I have three characters and there has been a death, but of whom we are not sure, and the cause of the death also remains a mystery. An original intention was to replay the same scene three times with different emphases or from a different character’s point of view; I’ve rejected this idea I think, because I think it’s too unwieldy given the ten-minute time frame. So instead I have gone with an idea drawn from the movie Memento, which begins right at the end (or just before the end) of the story and then unfolds in reverse chronology. I have started with the end of the story and I am trying to work back from there. I don’t know how it will work…I suppose that’s why we have drafts! And the Delete key.

1.23 am

Just finished the first draft. Not happy with the ending: too much of a blatant yank on the heartstrings. Time for a break and a stretch and a wee and another coffee and a think. I’ve drawn some inspiration from what I’m doing from Augusto Boal, founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, who in his book of that name mentions that Brecht, as a Marxist, believed that theatre “must show the ways in which society loses its equilibrium”. I may have lost sight of that a bit towards the end of this draft.

1.58 am

At a rough read, my masterpiece is eight minutes long, which is good. Stuart would rather it be under than over the time limit. Also good to know I have a couple of minutes to play with, in tweaking and fiddling, which is what I’m up to now; although, with stage business, I wouldn’t be surprised if I fill out the ten minutes pretty closely. So there’s no scope for major revision. Also I have to write out a white sheet I wanted to use in the opening scene; no extra props! Damn it. I think I’m still being allowed to use some blank sheets of A4 paper, so that’s okay.

2.54 am

I think it might be done. I am not sure what else I can do with it. Have spent the last hour fixing the structure of the last scene (of three) which I simply couldn’t get to work but I think I’ve cracked it. I am sure–in fact, I hope–that even though I have this sense of finality about it now, the director and the actors will surprise me with how they deliver the script to performance. I’ll read it again and try for a rough timing and then, if it really does seem that I should stop tinkering, I’ll email it in.

3.58 pm

And it’s gone. Emailed to Stuart and Nicole, the director I’m working with. The second timed reading clocked in at 8 mins 50 seconds, so with dramatic pauses and stage business that should almost certainly push ten minutes in performance. I think I have regained a sense of the Brechtian notion I referred to earlier, about equilibrium. It’s not a completely cheerful piece of theatre but I think that ‘kick in the guts’ stories have their place. I vividly recall films like Once were Warriors and Trainspotting for that reason.

And so it’s done. It was exhilarating–I have crafted and more or less perfected something that didn’t exist, except as an inkblot, a few hours ago. I have to let go now–something I’m not really used to, since with fiction and poetry I retain the Last Word, as it were. Not this time. So let’s see where my baby–it’s called Catch Me by the way–is taken by the talented and interesting people into whose care it is now trusted.

And with that, it’s probably time for some sleep. Good night. Or morning, as the case may be.

Improbable Fiction and a writer’s paralysis

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Yes, I know. Long time between drinks. Very long. Let’s move on!

Last night I attended one of the last rehearsals of a local theatre production of Alan Ayckbourne’s play Improbable Fiction. The central conceit of this play is a clever one–a writer’s group meets to discuss their work (in Act One) and then, following some portentous thunder and so on, the characters they have created come to life (in Act Two) and act out the situations in the books they are writing. It’s quite a romp–very funny, very well acted by a strong local cast, providing further evidence of the cultural strength and resilience of my little corner of the world. Congratulations must go to the Launceston Players.

However, I was taken by one of the characters in particular and I thought I would muse briefly on her situation. The character’s name is Jess and the book she has in her head is a historical costume drama, a la jane Austen perhaps, but despite her best intentions she has yet to commit a word of it paper. I cannot remember the exact way it’s expressed in her dialogue but, to paraphrase, she is afraid that if she attempts to translate the perfect world of the book that she has in her head into words on paper, it won’t work–she will never be able to capture exactly the story that she has crafted in her mind.

Many people will tell you that the easiest thing in the world is not to write. I have been told at workshops and so on, many times, that no one is expecting it of you; the world is not holding its breath in anticipation of your masterpiece. So in writing, we have to look beyond this and find motivation to keep the pen moving or the fingers tapping. This situation might well be compounded by fear of the type that Jess articulates–what if we get it horribly wrong? Here’s a truth: you might. Hemingway said that the first draft of anything is always shit, if you’ll pardon the vulgarity. But writing is nothing if not a search for meaning and part of the intoxication, the thing that more often than not keeps me heading back to the pen or keyboard, is that everything is part of that search. It’s very unlikely that you will ever complete a story or a poem or a novel exactly as you initially imagined it, because that’s what ideas and characters do–they evolve and react and change and, sometimes, they argue with you.

Perhaps writing that first draft, just committing words to paper, is akin to casting yourself off from shore and going where the wind takes you; don’t argue too loudly, and don’t be afraid.  The American novelist Jane Smiley says that she searches for the energy in her writing: “…at some point in every day’s writing, there will be a sort of takeoff…there’s a place where I feel the energy moving itself forward, instead of me pushing it.” (Reference below.)

Yes, writing takes courage–if for no reason than because you do it in spite of what the world asks of you. All creativity, someone once said, is courageous. I understand the sense of paralysis that Jess refers to; perhaps it’s small act of rebellion to cast this aside and just get on with it, and appreciate that I probably won’t land where I expected to.

Jane Smiley cited in Maran, M. (ed.): Why we Write: 20 acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do. 2013. New York: Plume Books (Penguin).