Posts Tagged ‘The Truth’

One of my favourite stories about the sinking of the Titanic is the one about the extreme localist agenda of a Scottish newspaper reporting on the disaster. The headline that appeared the following day was: “Aberdeen Man Lost at Sea”.

More conventional newspaper response to Titanic disaster

For my Mexican family, the story that had passed down the generations was that their English ancestor, my great grandfather, Arthur Greenhalgh, went down with the ship. The belief that they had clung to for the best part of a century, until I came along to ruin it all, was that he was on his way back to Mexico to be with them. As I wrote a week ago, the Titanic’s departure from New York on April 20th1912 was one that he might have been on, had he been further held up by revolution and flood, and had the Titanic survived its maiden voyage. There was however, a link between my great grandfather and the ill-fated ship.

Shipping chart from New-York-Herald April-14-1912 showing positions of Caronia and Titanic

When researching The Mango Orchard in the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum in London, I came across a telegraph that was sent by the wireless operator on the SS Caronia – the ship on which my great grandfather was travelling. The message was sent at 9am on April 14 1912 to the Titanic coming the other way. It was sent from close to where the Titanic went down. And the message?   “Look out, there are icebergs” …

… especially if you are from Aberdeen.


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How factually accurate does a non-fiction story have to be? It’s a conundrum for every travel and non-fiction writer, and is hotly debated by readers and writers alike.

The latest Issue of Traveller magazine

I was not to worry, she said, someone had already written a sidebar with all the facts and figures of how to get there and what to see. From me she wanted a mood piece to accompany some beautiful photos she had of the city. “Something made hazy with the passing of time might work well.” She was also after a strong visual and sensory idea of place, with a clear narrative. So, I was to write a poetic vignette, hazy yet with a clear narrative… about a place I couldn’t really remember.

It was a tough brief. I tried to construct the piece around the few facts I could really remember, but it just didn’t work. It only started to come together when I allowed myself to remember the emotions I had felt when I was in Oaxaca.  Two days before I arrived there I had left Juanita behind in Guatemala. My heart was raw and I experienced everything through the sensation of loss.

Suddenly, the words came easily and the article was written. But how is it possible, you might ask, that my stay in Oaxaca – so ripe with emotional drama – didn’t appear in the book?

I had always intended on writing this scene in The Mango Orchard, but didn’t include it in the end because it didn’t make narrative sense. I cut it out to make the story read better.

This leads to a question I am often asked: is The Mango Orchard all true? Yes, it is. Everything really did happen; I just changed the order of some events. In real life, I left Juanita not once, but twice. To have included it exactly as it occurred in real life however, would have been confusing. It might have also made me look like a bit of an idiot.

If someone asks you about your day, you edit it down. If, for instance, during your day you bought a cheese and ham sandwich, paid a bill at the bank and then saw the Queen water skiing naked on the Thames, my guess is that you would probably neglect to mention the bank and the cheese and ham sandwich.

Bruce Chatwin

I know of non-fiction writers who create composite characters and invent key sequences to enable them to tell the story. Even a travel writing great like Bruce Chatwin was accused of fictionalising significant portions of In Patagonia. Some writers go to the other extreme and transcribe every word of every meeting, even to the extent of pretending to have diarrhoea so they can run to the bathroom every five minutes to jot down conversations verbatim.

For the record, my policy on writing non-fiction is this: events have to really have happened, characters need to exist. But if changing the order of events or highlighting a particular aspect of a character’s personality helps the story to flow better, I don’t hesitate. Also, while I quote people as accurately as possible, I don’t think the reader will complain if I edit out the ums, I don’t knows and non-sequiturs.

Finally, I have a confession to make. Amy, the editor of Traveller magazine didn’t ask me to write the article at the launch party. In reality, it was eight days later, after a phone call and an extended e-mail correspondence, following a conversation we started at the party. Would you really rather I had put that at the beginning of this blog?

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My friend Claire sends me a text message. ‘I’ve just heard the new Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow single on the radio,’ she says, ‘And they’ve nicked the opening line from your book.’
I go on-line to listen to the song and read the lyrics. I’ve never tried to do this before, and I’m amazed how easy it is. Within 30 seconds of having received the text I am watching the video; an Americana Brokeback bromance gone sour and patched up within the four minutes and twenty three seconds it takes them to sing the song.
The song is okay, but the opening line is stunning:
Well there’s three versions of this story mine, yours and then the truth”
I turn to page three, line eight and nine of The Mango Orchard:
“There are three versions of every story: my version, your version and the truth.”
They are virtually identical, apart from the fact that the line in The Mango Orchard is grammatically correct. My version was also released into the public domain over six months before the Robbie and Gary single came in to being. I post the observation on Facebook and Twitter. The responses come in thick and fast, most along the lines of “sue the bastards”. I even get some offers to help me to do just that.
I don’t profess to be any legal expert – Igglepiggle from In the Night Garden could probably be more reasonably expected to form a coherent legal opinion than me – but I’m pretty sure that taking two multimillionaire pop stars to court over a line which I copied from a conversation with my grandmother 35 years ago is probably not the right way to go.
I opt for trying to exact some PR advantage from the “coincidence”. I phone Robbie’s management company. A very well-spoken lady answers. I explain the situation and I can sense her hackles rising until I say that I’m not looking to take any legal action, I’m just interested to know if either Gary or Robbie have read my book, and if they haven’t, maybe they’d like to (and be photographed reading it).
‘Well they are together at the moment, as they are promoting the single,’ she says. ‘Send me an e-mail with the details and I’ll forward it to them. I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.’
I send the mail and wait. And wait.
A week goes by and I haven’t heard anything, so I phone up. Again, a very well-spoken voice answers my call. I ask for to speak to Sarah and am told that she is in a meeting so I explain to the well-spoken voice about the similarity of the line in the song to my book, and say I am interested to know if either of the two singers has read The Mango Orchard. She asks me for my details and says Sarah will call me back the moment she returns from her meeting.
‘Thank you very much,’ I say, ‘and can you give me your name?’
There is a pause and hear panic. Then very meekly she says, ‘Sarah…’
There are three versions of every story; mine, yours and ‘they’re in a meeting’.

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