Friday 25 April 2014

Genealogy: the danger of trusting official documents

Newcomers to family history research can be forgiven for believing that official documents such as birth, death and marriage certificates are "gospel", so to speak. Not true.

When I was researching my book, God's Triangle, the story of a scandal involving my Baptist missionary Great Aunt Florence M. "Florrie" Cox, I came across the civil marriage record in Calcutta of her ex-husband and his mistress. The document contained several errors and misleading statements.

Even though the husband, Frank E. Paice, and his mistress, A. Olga Johnston, had been ordained missionaries, they were not above telling a few fibs. Olga gave her age as 32, just a year older than Frank, but three years younger than she really was. She wouldn't have been the first woman to lie about her age, but there was also a whopping deceit about how long she and Frank had been living in Calcutta. Frank claimed to have lived there for seven years, while Olga said she had been there for five years. This was blatantly untrue. They could not have been there for more than a few months as they had been in Australia for at least a year and before that, had been stationed for about six years in remote missionary outposts in East Bengal. Presumably they had lied because of residential requirements for their marriage.

There were several other aspects of the official record that could be seen as misleading, but I won't bore you with those. The point I want to make is that if the civil marriage record had been the first document I had found in my research, I would have been sent down routes that might never had led to me establishing the truth.

Similarly, anyone researching my Australian maternal grandfather, Arthur Joseph George Cox, would have been seriously mis-informed about his life had they gone first to his death certificate. His mistress-then-second-wife, Phyllis, had deliberately not mentioned that he had been married before and fathered 10 children, including my mother, Rena.

Not all errors in official family history documents are deliberate. Sometimes they are just careless mistakes. An example: the death certificate of my Great Aunt and opera singer, Reba Rangan, was wrong in several respects. For starters, Reba was her nickname, not her real name. Then her father was given as "unknown", which wasn't true. Her aunt was named as her mother, which also wasn't true, and it was further stated that she had spent all her life in Australia -- overlooking the fact she lived and worked in London for some time as an opera performer.

The death certificate details had been provided by a nephew and when I challenged him about the inaccuracies, he said simply that he had made no real attempt to establish the facts. He had just guessed most of the information.

I could give other examples of incorrect family history documents, but I hope that I have successfully made my point: treat all certificates with an element of caution.


Learn more about the Rev Frank E. Paice by going HERE   
Learn more about A. Olga Johnson by going HERE
Learn more about Florence M. "Florrie" Cox by going HERE
Learn more about Reba Rangan by going HERE

Thursday 24 April 2014

Sub-titles -- the good and the bad and those that are just not there

UPDATE: Wonderful new live sub-titling error on a BBC weather forecast: “Miss Dan Fogg could be found in Scotland yesterday morning."

My wife and I are not deaf, but we have to admit that at our advanced years our hearing is not perfect. The top frequencies don't register very well and consequently we sometimes have to wear our hearing aids at lectures or while watching TV.

We are immensely grateful to the BBC and the main British commercial channels for routinely offering sub-titles. We've never had trouble with sub-titles, having loved watching foreign-language movies in our younger days in Australia. What surprises us is the number of British films that are being offered on DVD without sub-titles. It is now the fashion with television and feature film dramas to have the actors speak "naturally", i.e. not producing and projecting their voices as was the practice in days gone by. All very well, but the directors and producers must accept that there are now more old people than youngsters in Britain and with age comes hearing problems. Therefore, sub-titles are important for a great many people who buy or rent DVDs. Without sub-titles, many DVDs are of little or no use to many potential buyers. So, how about it guys and gals: spend a little more time and money making sure that your DVDs have sub-titles. It will make many of your customers happy and may well result in increased sales.

Going back to the sub-titles offered with programmes transmitted on mainstream television channels in Britain, there is sometimes fun to be had watching the automated sub-titling on live shows. This is usually done with voice recognition software with its inevitable dangers. A friend of mine recently spotted these three amusing mis-translations in just an hour or two of watching a live television programme:

--- A shrug of carriage = Nigel Farage
--- Gaultier a brat on strike = Gaultier Breton stripe
--- Richard had a habitation below the knee = ... an amputation...

But my favourite of recent times concerns the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov.
His name came up on the TV news screens one day as "So gay lover of". This is additionally amusing in the light of Russia's difficulty coping with homosexuality.

Saturday 12 April 2014

What comes first -- the book or the film of the book?

UPDATE: Since posting the message below I have received very useful suggestions about the need to make my book less like a film script. In view of this, I have made several changes (see the link towards the bottom of the page). Feel free to make any other suggestions that you feel might improve the telling of the story. Ian R

As much as there are any hard and fast rules in the film-making business, it is the received wisdom that a book is written then someone else buys the film rights and turns it into a movie.

That's not the way it is with me, but then perhaps I am just perverse.

To be honest, I had never intended to become a screenwriter -- certainly not one so late in life after more than 40 years in print and broadcast journalism in Australia and the United Kingdom. Nor had it ever occurred to me that I might write a book. Quite the contrary. I always thought a book would require too much damned effort. But here I am, both screenwriter and book author and doing things in what many professionals think is the wrong way around.

But to go back a bit...

My first screenplay, GOD'S TRIANGLE, came about by accident. My wife, Rosemary, and I are keen genealogists and stumbled across the fascinating and sad story of my Australian Great Aunt Florence "Florrie" Cox. Florrie was a Baptist missionary in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) during the First World War, and as the story emerged of why her marriage to the Rev. Frank E. Paice went into meltdown, Rosemary recognised its potential as a feature film.

I sold the idea to an official of  Film Victoria, the Victorian State Government film agency in Melbourne. But pitching an idea to someone who thinks it is a great idea is the easy bit. In my case, I also naively believed that a total of seven years in television news qualified me to write the script for a film lasting between 90 and 120 minutes. Wrong. So wrong. My first attempt at a script was truly terrible, chiefly because it was dialogue driven and gave away too much information too early. Gradually I got the hang of screenwriting, but still no-one came forward with a firm offer.

The turning point came when Rosemary pointed out that I should be drawing up a detailed chronological account of our God's Triangle research for the historical record. This soon morphed into diary that became a paperback and ebook. And that did the trick. Once that was published, the interest grew and the film rights were picked up. The screenplay is now in pre-production development with two producers in Melbourne, financed by Film Victoria.

This got me thinking about my three other screenplays -- in particular The Moral Maze, a fictional thriller about a foreign correspondent corrupted by the intelligence services with disastrous consequences. Why not also write the book version of this story, I wondered? And that's what I am now doing, in the hope that its publication will lead to the screenplay being picked up by someone with access to about $US10m.

The book should be published before next Christmas. I'm just loving writing it because it requires such a difference approach to a film script. If you interested in making the comparisons, I have posted the opening scenes and chapters on my main Richardson Media Limited website. Here are the LINKS to the SCREENPLAY and to the BOOK.

Feel free to send me your comments to me: ian*at*

PS: Sorry that I can't give you a link to any extracts of the God's Triangle screenplay at this stage, but the script is again a work in progress and currently subject to commercial confidentiality.