In the meantime, while Tennyson's exhortation for the wild bells to ring out to the wild sky referred to the peals that traditionally ring in each new year, we ought to point out any tintinnabulation smiting the ear hereabouts is more likely to be Poe's brazen alarum bells screaming out their affright at our announcement that this final 2004 issue of Orphan Scrivener is now formally declared open. Read on!
One interesting thing we have discovered in researching our novels is that what scholars "know" is as often as not a matter of intense dispute amongst scholars themselves and varies wildly from one individual to the next. Further, our "knowledge" of the past is often based on far less evidence than a casual reader of history books would imagine. For example, even today scholars cannot agree on the exact location of many landmarks in ancient Constantinople, small as the area is. Further, the past has a peculiar habit of changing right along with the present, with current thought, new generations of historians looking to make their mark, fresh discoveries, intellectual fads, and academic movements. Whatever the past really was, the past we know is in constant flux. However one scholar might describe the past, we can be assured that some other reputable scholar differs, or is busily writing a treatise which will differ. However we understand things to have been, looking back from our current vantage point, fifty years hence those looking back will see something different.
As writers of historical mysteries Mary and I are, first and foremost, trying to tell a good story. We aren't historians nor do we pretend to be. I'm not aware that historians present original research in the form of novels. Clearly, if you want pure history you read pure history. However, since we write historical mysteries and not fantasies, we try to get our facts right. We can't describe the Hippodrome as being square because the oblong ruins are still there to see. It's a fact. On the other hand, we have some leeway in describing the environs of the Great Palace since little of it remains and scholars are not sure what it looked like. Various opinions have been presented, but they are not facts even though some scholars tend to present their opinions as facts.
Thus, Mary and I ask whether something "could happen." In asking ourselves whether something "could happen" we don't mean could it happen in an alternate history where all the conditions exist to make it possible. For example, we wouldn't write a historical mystery in which Leonardo da Vinci built a workable flying machine. Da Vinci thought up a lot of amazing inventions when he wasn't busy writing codes but the technology of the time probably wouldn't have been adequate to create them even if the general theories were correct. In the world he lived in, he probably couldn't have built a workable flying machine.
In deciding whether we can include something in a novel we first ask whether the matter at hand is fact or opinion. If it is fact the matter is settled -- but as it turns out a lot of historical facts are really opinions. When we are faced with an opinion we then look to see whether there is some reputable modern academic support. As mentioned, in many cases there are conflicting views. If the view which aids our story appears to have some reasonable support among scholars we feel free to go with it, even though some may disagree. The opinion or viewpoint of an individual scholar is not a fact. For example, many Byzantists insist that in an important work Cyril Mango got the location of the entrance to the Great Palace entirely wrong, and Mango is one of the greatest authorities on Byzantium.
Fiction -- even modern fiction -- is, after all, about things that haven't happened. All the world-threatening plots one reads about in modern thrillers haven't happened. But they could happen. Maybe. I'd bet that modern thriller writers stretch the fabric of reality further than the most careless writers of historicals when the former imagine what might be possible. So, although Mary and I want to stick to what "could happen" in our historical era we don't feel we have to constrain our creativity either to the point of only using ideas that can be absolutely verified or that historians all agree upon. (If something absolutely could not have happened than we obviously can't use it nor can we use something that verifiably didn't happen.)
Here's an example. In Two For Joy, Philo, John's former philosophy tutor who has spent a few years in Persia, brings a chess game back to Constantinople. It was called Shatranj at the time. Chess was not mentioned as appearing in Byzantium for several decades. However, it existed already in the east. We saw no reason why we couldn't postulate that a traveler to the east had brought a chess game back, before its presence was mentioned in the surviving literature. Perhaps no writer remarked on this isolated chess game, the only one in the city. Perhaps one did but the manuscript was lost, along with the vast majority of classical writings, in the intervening centuries. This is the sort of thing we are talking about when we ask could it have happened. Could certain things have happened during the historical period as we think we know it? Not whether history could've turned out differently.
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Upon reading this, the original crew of Carry On thespians immediately arose in the mind's eye -- walnut-faced Sid James with his fruity laugh, dimple-chinned and jolly Joan Sims, buxom Hattie Jaques with her sweet smile, outrageously camp and nostril-flarer Kenneth Williams, impishly grinning Charles Hawtrey, he of the round-framed spectacles and absentminded air, and bubbly Barbara Windsor, her tottering blond hairdo nigh as tall as herself.
Over thirty Carry Ons have appeared, although twenty years after the series began -- say around the mid-l970s or so -- they began to star fewer of the original crew for one reason or another. In some cases death had taken them forever offstage. Between those losses and shifts in what was and is considered comical, these later entries are generally regarded as not up to scratch, but in earlier times the series was much loved in the UK and not surprisingly placed consistently among the top-grossing productions at kinematic palace box offices.
What was it about the always less than politically correct Carry On films that appealed so much to British filmgoers? It's hard to put a finger on it exactly (a perfectly innocent phrase which would have leapt upon and made much of in any of these films). I believe it was largely due to the fact they carried on several fine old British traditions not entirely unconnected with music hall -- smuttiness that somehow didn't offend and a healthy amount of honest vulgarity along with huge helpings of robust sexual innuendo of the naughty seaside postcard variety, the resulting mix well laced with occasional glimpses of as much female pulchritude as the censors would allow. Plots were paper thin, serving merely to set the scene and then launch a seemingly endless stream of groanworthy puns, double entendres, naughty jokes, outrageous situations, racy comments, and sight gags, held together by character types that changed little from film to film.
Character names contributed to the fun inasmuch as they were so inevitable that, like familiar family jokes, they raised a laugh no matter how obvious they were. A few examples: Senna, wife of Hengis Pod (Carry On, Cleo), Albert Poop-Decker (Carry On, Jack), the Khasi of Kalabar and Bungit Din (Carry On Up The Khyber), Sid Plummer and W. C. Boggs (Carry On At Your Convenience), the Duc De Pommfrit and Citizen Camembert (Carry On Don't Lose Your Head), caddish Sir Roger de Lodgerly (Carry On Henry), and Doctors Stoppidge, Nookey, and Carver (Carry On Again Doctor). One of the most memorable was Charles Hawtrey's character in Carry On Up The Khyber, which reappeared in a recent biography of the actor bearing the proud subtitle of The Man Who Was Private Widdle.
Another likely reason for the success of the Carry On films was the affectionate but pointed fun they poked at British institutions. Carry On Sergeant, the team's first film in l958, dealt with National Service, a two year conscription period that British men aged l8 and upwards were required to serve at the time. The plot concerns a particularly hopeless bunch of new recruits who form the last squad Sergeant Grimshawe will train before he retires, and one which he bets a colleague he will knock into such good shape that it will be voted the Star Squad of that year's intake. Audience members familiar with square-bashing, potato peeling, bayonet practice, and being marched on the double everywhere by stentorian-voiced sergeant majors doubtless enjoyed seeing the system mercilessly sent up as well as its depiction of the camaraderie that such service inspired.
Such was the success of the film that the team went forth again. Its next outing was Carry on Nurse, the first of an eventual quartet poking fun at the familiar National Health Service (the other three were Carry On Doctor, Carry On Again Doctor, and Carry On Matron). Needless to say, all featured gags about bedpans, painful injections in the rear, hospital food, haughty specialists, and bolshie patients. These medical shenanigans introduced Hattie Jacques' signature role as a dragon of a matron, striking fear into doctors, nurses, patients, and hospital support staff alike.
Needless to say, other kinematic productions were not safe from the script writers, and more than one had the mickey mercilessly taken out of it. Carry on Cleo utilised the same sets and some of the props and costumes from the Burton-Taylor epic -- even its poster had a rather familiar look to it. This was the Roman epic containing the much-quoted line from Kenneth Williams, whose just-stabbed Caesar cries out "Infamy, infamy, you've all got it infamy". Carry on Jack made fun of the great British seafaring tradition as well as Hornblowerian sagas and featured an anything-but fearless Captain Fearless and a mutinous crew, while Carry on Screaming parodied Hammer's successful run of horror films, complete with a dark, cobwebby house inhabited by a sinister scientist and his sister whose doings are investigated by a Victorian policeman and his medical sidekick in an attempt to find out why young local women are disappearing.
British culture took its lumps as well. Carry on Camping had fun with the era's popularity of those sylvan breaks under canvas, while Carry On Abroad satirised the increasing number of Britons taking foreign package holidays, only to find unfinished hotels as the destination to which they all unknowingly flocked, in this instance in the Spanish holiday town of Elsbels.
In due course, certain periods in history became targets. The French Revolution and the Scarlet Pimpernel both provided grist for the mill with Carry On, Don't Lose Your Head (perhaps one of the weaker entries in the series) while Carry On Up the Kyhber dealt with the waning days of the British Empire when tribes were waiting to pour down the pass in order to get up to no good, especially once they found out what the much-feared Scottish regiment really wore under its kilts. It was in this film that Joan Sims as Lady Ruff-Diamond observed in true stiff upper lip fashion "I seem to be getting a little plastered" as the ceiling fell down around a dinner party being held during the bombardment of the British Embassy. In Carry On Henry Sid James played a bawdy Henry VIII trying his lusty best to beget an heir with Marie of France, a wife previously unknown to history. She unfortunately liked to eat garlic and refused to stop, thus leading to a royal demand she be removed one way or another without causing offence to her cousin, the French king. Then there was Carry on Dick, which dealt not with private eyes as one might expect but rather folk hero and highwayman Dick Turpin, with jokes that no doubt can be imagined.
While recent resurgence of interest in sword and sandal epics has led to occasional interesting if ultimately fruitless contemplation here at Casa Maywrite as to what sort of shambles the Carry On crew would have made of John's adventures, I must admit to surprise that they never got around to skewering Shakespeare and his times. Think of the wonderful material they'd provide -- an era of robust manners and morals, plays featuring women disguised as men and mistaken identities, a roistering society cursed with primitive sanitation, and endless courtly intrigues -- plus the golden opportunity to title a Carry On film in their traditional slyly suggestive manner, which is to say by using the common diminutive of Shakespeare's Christian name.
Sleep in a Procrustes bed tonight -- you'll be a new man tomorrow!
Buy your next car from Jason's Used Car Emporium -- you won't get fleeced!
Find your next pair of spectacles at Argus Eyeglasses -- tell them Polyphemus sent you.
To close with another sort of spectacle, subscribers in the habit of marking red letter days on their calendars might wish to note thereupon that the next issue of Orphan Scrivener will flap into their in-box on l5 February 2005, which by the way marks the fifth anniversary of Orphan Scrivener's first leap out upon an unsuspecting world.
Until then, we wish you and yours all good things for the holiday season and the new year.
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the aether at
Therein you'll find the usual suspects, including more personal essays and an interactive game as well as an on-line jigsaw puzzle (if you have a java-enabled browser) featuring One For Sorrow's boldly scarlet cover. For those new to the subscription list there's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned!