Fact and fiction

SO THERE I was, an outsider at the global epicentre of men with bushy beards and cardigans. They were enthusiasts who knew all about gramophones from the earliest days of recorded music. I had stumbled across them because I was working on a novel that featured, among others, two early recording stars – Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba. I'd come across a contact for the gramophone collectors' club: Would it be possible, I wrote, to visit someone and learn more about these early machines with their cylinders and huge horns?

The reply was welcoming, probably more welcoming than I really wanted. Why didn't I attend their next meeting, to be held in the clubhouse of a suburban tennis association? There I'd find an array of machines, some of which I could handle, and people who could answer my questions. And so, one wintry evening, I found myself surrounded by shaggy men and tables on which were arrayed countless wind-up gramophones. All I wanted was to mooch about and take some notes. Instead, I was introduced by the club president and invited to tell everyone the reason for my visit.

Feeling as if I was facing a firing squad of whiskers, I explained that I was researching a novel set in Melbourne in 1910. Harry Houdini, the escape artist, was the principal character, but Melba was also in it, and Caruso, as well as Puccini, the composer. The last two, I revealed, were holed up in the same hotel as Houdini...a hand shot up towards the rear of my audience. I sensed steel-wool eyebrows quivering with indignation.

‘Caruso never got anywhere near Australia,' said the owner of the eyebrows, as if this would be news to me. (It wasn't.)

‘He does now!' I replied, expecting to spark a chorus of indulgent chuckles. Instead there was a shocked silence, as if I had stood up before them and loudly farted.

Only then did it occur to me that these men were purists, people who wanted to play fragile cylinders on hundred-year-old machinery rather than have anything to do with digitally remastered CDs of these long-gone stars. Glossy paint jobs, even conversion to electricity, were anathema to these collectors. The idea of my using, say, one of their beloved Edison machines as a prop in Puccini's hotel room – a made-up episode in a work of fiction – was close to sacrilege. I wandered around for a while, then slipped away into the darkness. Nobody offered to loan me a gramophone to further my research.

Thus ended one of several episodes that left me stranded in the minefield between fiction and non-fiction. I'd been there before. Towards the end of the production process for my novel Burke's Soldier – a retelling of the Burke and Wills story through the eyes of John King, a largely forgotten figure in the expedition – a draft was sent to Geoffrey Blainey, the historian. He'd kindly agreed to scan the manuscript for historical howlers: statues that hadn't been erected; gas lighting in the wrong places; that sort of thing. In his comments, he mentioned a chapter in which I had King travel by train to Adelaide to meet John McDouall Stuart, the explorer who'd done what Burke failed to achieve – cross from one side of the continent to the other and return alive. King would have actually gone to Adelaide by coach, Blainey noted, and it would have been a wearisome journey over a couple of days.

It didn't take much to fix the chapter. King's trip took longer, and he was tired when he got there. I made the necessary changes. Then I started laughing. There is no evidence that the paths of King and Stuart ever intersected. Their meeting was entirely in my mind. It just seemed to me that they'd have a lot to talk about. Imagining Stuart was also another way of picturing Burke: one a Scot; the other an Irishman; both more than a little mad. King's trip to Adelaide was entirely fictitious. But now, thanks to advice from an eminent historian, I would get him there as accurately as possible.


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