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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

No Absolutes!

When I first made the decision that my story, "The Legend of Salt and Sauce", was going to be a book I thought it would be finished by 2002. Sure enough, by this time we had enough information to produce the life story of these two famous elephants. We knew where they started off, the names of all their owners, how one of them died and, so we thought, how the other died. We also had some good photos. However, as I sent off my proposals to various publishers we started to uncover yet more information. The story changed - not only the content, but my writing style too. As time went on I started hearing words of advice like "you must have a cut off point" - mind you, this was coming from someone who had surpassed Dr. Johnson's ten years in writing his book and five years on he still hasn't had it published! I began to realize that writing an historical book despite having its strict parameters was a completely organic process and one where it was not easy to estimate when its "life" would end.
As time went on I met some terrific writing coaches who helped me develop my writing style. As in the writing of any book, a huge amount of time was put into refining my writing style and then into editing. Please read my friend Geoff Thompson's philosophical article on this particular area, "There is No Such Thing as a Locked Script" My book changed from its initial conception, as a type of "Pulp Non-Fiction" (this style is retained in the book's prologue), to being a first person narrative of my father and my investigation into the story of Salt and Sauce (this is retained in the book's footnotes, introduction and afterward), and then finally into the book that it is today - a straightforward fact-based biography. The people who enabled me to take this route were Jonathan Burt, a social historian and author, Laura Longrigg, a literary agent who noticed that I had become infected by the Victorian writing style of the material I had been researching, and Ian Lewis, a retired teacher who did a tremendous amount of kind work for me.
Now, this is just the writing side of things. The trouble with history is that the content is also very temperamental. New evidence crops up all the time. And it was this side of things that became a constant source of jubilation and frustration. By October 2007 I was happy that I had researched all that needed to be researched. I had covered every important area of the elephants' lives that needed to be covered and I had all my sources noted and verified as far as practicable. The story was completely finished. I was happy with how it read. Now my father and I were completing the final tasks. We were listing all the photographs, putting a timeline together for the elephants lives and writing the introduction and afterward. We had a deadline and we were assembling everything to be sent off on time. The book was scheduled to be published by March with the first proofs through by January. Then, the emails came in. Emails from family connected to people who had owned the elephants. These people had more information that filled in gaps, presented new interesting and related anecdotes, and even new photographs. They had to go into the book.I worked hard to include the new material and photographs and still felt that I would make the deadline. As it turned out my publisher moved the deadline back, so I need not had worried at that time. After doing all this I began work on this blog with the very kind help and coaching of historian/author, Heather Vallance of I also started promoting elsewhere to garner local support. The next thing I knew Robin Stott a local historian was in contact with me regarding Sam Lockhart, the elephant training brother of George Lockhart, one time owner of Salt and Sauce. He gave me more information for my appendix on Sam, which I hurriedly included and begged my publisher to include. It made it to him on the eleventh hour. I sent Robin my completed appendix, but there was yet more information he had and a few errors in the appendix. This time my publisher could not allow it and this will be reserved for the second edition of the book.In my introduction to "The Legend of Salt and Sauce" I wrote that my book was not intended to be the "final word" on the lives of Salt and Sauce. Now I realize the weight of that statement. Over the past two years I have become more sceptical in my nature, which has been quite a liberating process. I have come to understand something that I have pondered for most of my life: there are rarely any absolutes in anything. It is a bitter pill for many people to swallow, but when you are in the field of history or science it is essential that you understand that research goes on and that even so-called facts are temporary conclusions. We need to embrace the idea that our work will attract constructive critics who will add to our research and present new information.
I carry this same concept over to my martial arts/self-defence classes. By not listing any techniques in my grading syllabus we have created an atmosphere of constant questioning, researching, testing and individualistic development. Nature seems to tell us that everything changes and develops or it dies. The same goes with history and science, however, this changing should only happen through objective research and the presence empirical evidence. Therefore it is fine to say "that's just a theory", but the theory with the most evidence temporally prevails.
The human desire for knowledge, however, is all too often checked by the human desire for assurance. This is why it is very easy for scientists, historians, religious people, politicians, philosophers and academics of all descriptions to rest on their laurels or become immovable in the face contradictory evidence. The same passion that drives assurance appears to be similar to the passion that drives belief in the improbable. Conspiracy theorists, alternative historians, pseudoscientists and their ilk are all driven by the need of wanting something to be true. We can all empathise with this feeling, so we should perhaps be a little wary of being too scornful of such "believers". I doubt there are many people who hear about the latest reports from Mars and don't get excited about the idea of there perhaps being "signs of life" - anything, please, a fossil of an amoeba will do.
However, being sceptical and accepting the concept of change is exciting too. In fact, it is through this questioning and progressing procedure that exciting prospects and new levels of awareness are initiated. An old maxim of mine was "love the flower but respect the root" and now I see that perhaps I might become a root. I remember getting quite frustrated with a lot of my original sources - books like George Lockhart Jnr's "Grey Titan" - and say "this bloody thing led me completely down the wrong road altogether". However, looking back it did present me with some fairly sturdy facts that actually gave some structure and helped fill the first third of the book - which doesn't even cover a decade - with vivid first hand accounts that were rarely equalled. There may come a day when an historian, who is interested in the areas of my research, picks up a copy of "The Legend of Salt and Sauce" and says "look how far we've come on from this". Putting my ego to one side that is a day the true historian in me wants to happen.

1 comment:

penandspindle said...

Jamie, a thought provoking essay. Thanks for the kind mention. It is much appreciated.