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Crocodiles and alligators

November 27, 2018

I’ve just been reading Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond. It’s an entertaining period piece, amusing enough if you can get past the affected, faux-naif style – and actually the last few pages, where she stops trying to be funny and gets serious, are really good. But I nearly didn’t reach those last few pages. An error on the second page almost put me off at the outset, when the narrator recounts the fate of a  Christian missionary who went off up the Amazon to preach to Brazilian Indians and “met death at the jaws of a crocodile”.

What was that crocodile doing in Brazil? There aren’t any crocodiles in Brazil, unless they’re in zoos. That missionary must have been eaten by an alligator.

If you look on a map at the eastern coastline of South America and the western coastline of Africa, you can see how these two continents were once joined together, until the movement of tectonic plates pulled them apart. One effect was that populations of species became separated and the separated populations evolved in slightly different ways. Thus many African species have South African counterparts, not quite the same but obviously sharing a common ancestor. In Africa we find crocodiles, in South America alligators; in Africa leopards, in South America jaguars; in Africa pythons, in South America anacondas; in Africa pangolins and in South America armadillos, and so on, and so on.

Should Macaulay have known this? Yes, I think she should. I like writers to get things right. I remember feeling similarly irritated at the beginning of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, when James’s parents ‘suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros’. 

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    This is a very interesting subject Brandon, and one that I have noticed and thought about before.

    I seem to recall an essay by Christopher Ricks on this subject in which he explores the importance of an author getting the technical details right. The example he uses is taken from Lord of the Flies, in which a lens from Piggy’s broken glasses is used to light a fire, focussing rays from the sun. Unfortunately, this would not be possible in real life. Being short-sighted, Piggy would have concave lenses in his glasses, whereas every schoolboy knows that you need a convex lens to light a fire.

    This may seem a nit-picking point, but it is important for the success of creating a fictional narrative which is credible and with which the reader is prepared to engage.

    This might go some way towards explaining, for example, the obsessive accuracy with which Joyce sought to re-create Dublin in Ulysses, famously consulting newspapers, street maps and bus timetables of the period to get these details absolutely right.

    I have noticed examples of this in the professional fields in which I am engaged, namely, the law and church music.

    When watching a courtroom drama, I always notice, and am impressed by, films or programmes in which the writing team get the technical details right. The recent film of ‘The Children Act’ was very good in this regard, and as a result I was much more inclined to go along with the actual story of the child needing a blood transfusion which otherwise might have stretched credibility. On the other hand, if the programme does not take the trouble, or simply ignores procedural accuracy for the sake of a good drama (Judge John Deed) I find that I am not prepared to go along with the rest of the story to the same degree, which is a shame both for the writer and the reader.

    Another example concerns church music in television dramas (Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders). Invariably there is a scene inside or outside a small village church, and in order to generate atmosphere, they play background music. However, the producer almost always overdubs the soundtrack of a thundering cathedral organ being played with virtuosity, whereas the reality is that such a church might have no organ at all, or a wheezing harmonium, or a little piping instrument with a willing volunteer doing their best to stumble through a hymn.

    I appreciate that this is a niche area, but the same important rule of fiction seems to apply; if the author asks the reader willingly to suspend disbelief, it is the author’s matching responsibility to make sure that the parts of the story which are rooted in the real world are as accurate as possible

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    I suspect there is a degree of trade off between convention and authenticity in legal dramas; judges may not use gavels in real life but are expected to on television. Similarly the number of times a jury are sent out whilst points of law are discussed is generally ignored.
    Having done jury service in east London I would suggest the judge might as well toss a coin on day one to determine the outcome and save everyone the trouble.

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