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nick pelling writes about the bookmaker from rabaul

This was written on Cipher Mysteries over a year before the book was published.

‘Pete Bowes has recently finished writing his Tamam Shud-themed novel The Bookmaker From Rabaul, a story carefully braided from the skein of loosely connected threads we like to call ‘historical evidence’. When published in December 2015, it will feature all the Usual Suspectskis of the Somerton Man world – spies, intelligence, betrayal, death, ciphers, and so on – and, on Pete’s past form, should have a rich cast of angular characters doing some kind of crunchy dialogue thing.

What’s nibbling at my trouser cuffs today is the distinction between literary truth and historical truth: doubtless Pete’s book will aspire to the former with a healthy nod to the latter, and that’s basically OK for novelists.

Yet the practical problem with literary truth is that aspiring to it is simply a terrible way of doing history: and this is something that Pete, for all his justified mania for details and (more recently) timelines, doesn’t really seem to get.

Perhaps the crux of the matter comes down to the difference between ‘more plausible’ and ‘more probable’ (this is known as the Conjunction Fallacy, Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” gives some nice examples). In the case of the Somerton Man, literary truth aspires to narrative plausibility while historical truth aspires to genuinely higher probability.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, as an example a little closer to home (if you live in South Australia, that is), which of the following two claims would you say is more probable:

(a) The Somerton Man was killed by someone he knew
(b) The Somerton Man was killed by a lover he had spurned

Kahneman points out that because (b) implicitly contains (a) [i.e. “a lover he had spurned” is a subset of “someone he knew”], (a) is automatically more mathematically probable than (b). And yet many people would judge that (b) is more probable, largely (I think) because it has a certain ‘ring of truth’ to it. By its cautious language, (a) is a bit ‘colder’, a little less human: people have some kind of innate need for stories to embody human values, and so (a) doesn’t quite cut it.

In my opinion, it is specifically that ‘ring of truth’-ness that literary truth aspires to: and the quality of words and thoughts that sets (b) ahead of (a) boils down to its greater plausibility. But that doesn’t make (b) more true, it just makes it a rounder-sounding story.

92

Agencies, spies, microwriting, uranium at Mount Painter, poison, misdirection, tradecraft, plausible deniability, even Venona: all of these are real historical things. When taken together, they can indeed be arranged to tell a beguiling, plausible story. However, none of them yet connects with the Somerton Man in a way that an historian can genuinely work with: and because none of these individual details yet offers us anything approaching a genuine, probable history, putting them all together at the same time automatically tells a mathematically less probable story – for the more elements you conjoin into a single narratove, the lower the resulting probability goes. Sorry, but that’s just the way the numbers work: I’m just the messenger, me.

For what it’s worth, I remain quite certain that we will, in due course, find out exactly who the Somerton Man was and what precisely brought him to Somerton Beach on the last day of his life. But I also have no doubt that this will come not from assembling plausible narrative macro-hypotheses, but rather from doing historical research the hard way: forming micro-hypotheses about specific aspects of what happened and then painstakingly testing them against the archives.

Pete and I are walking along the same beach, I suspect we’re travelling in quite opposite directions.’

Header pic is Future Man by Namrettec

The number one rule on walking along Australian beaches with pale-skinned non-swimming Englishmen, is don’t.

 

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. And there’s me thinking you’d hacked my selfies directory.

    January 19, 2017
  2. ‘Agencies, spies, microwriting, uranium at Mount Painter, poison, misdirection, tradecraft, plausible deniability, even Venona: all of these are real historical things.
    When taken together, they can indeed be arranged to tell a beguiling, plausible story. However, none of them yet connects with the Somerton Man in a way that an historian can genuinely work with:’

    Sing it with me, Dome ….

    Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
    Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
    Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
    Now shake dem skeleton bones!

    The tamam shud bone’s connected to the nurse’s telephone bone,
    The nurse’s telephone bone’s connected to the Boxall bone,
    The Boxall bone’s connected to the Rubaiyat bone,
    Now shake dem skeleton bones!

    The Rubaiyat bone’s connected to the nurse’s bone,
    The nurse’s bone’s connected to the Francis bone,
    The Francis bone’s connected to the SAPOL bone,
    Now shake dem skeleton bones!

    Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
    Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
    Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
    Now shake dem skeleton bones!

    January 19, 2017
  3. The Rubaiyat bone’s connected to the telephone number bone,
    The telephone number bone’s connected to the not-yet-married-nurse-and-car-salesman bone,
    The not-yet-married-nurse-and-car-salesman bone’s connected to, errrrm, whatever bone you like,
    Now shake dem skeleton bones!

    The microwriting bone’s connected to the, errrrrrm, imagination bone.
    (Not sure about this bit, perhaps need to work on it a bit more)
    Now shake dem skeleton bones!

    January 19, 2017
  4. Pity that after so many years you are unable to connect any of the bones belonging to those unattractive, naked Voynich ladies wearing hats and standing in buckets of water, Dome old bean, now that would be something for the ages, what?

    …. or is she attempting to do a little connecting for you?

    January 20, 2017
    • Until the skeleton stands up and dances down the street, who can tell for sure how many of its bones you have connected?

      January 20, 2017
      • Well, I’d guess you’d have to read the book … see if it rattles.

        January 20, 2017
  5. John sanders #

    The FBN bone’s connected to the White bone, connected to the Klaw bone, to the Dysdic bone, to the Cock bone, to the Lean bone, to the Nunn bone, the Fox bone, the Keane bone, ‘Archilles’ bone & Shud bone. Give em a shake and watcha got? A Skelington that floats on the full spring tide in the dawning hours , the first day of Adelaide’s golden summer. Just suppos’n dat’s what we got.

    January 20, 2017
  6. I worked in a boneyard once, they littered the slaughterhouse yards. Only the skulls were valuable, and only if the bolt left a neat, round hole.

    January 20, 2017
  7. “For me, the sign of a genuine theory is its incompleteness and humility in the face of honest difficulties:”

    Lifted from a comment by NP on his latest Voynich thread.

    I can do something with that.

    January 25, 2017
  8. Pete: well, if you’d lift an entire article from Cipher Mysteries (and present it as a “review”, hoho) without so much as a backlink, why not?

    January 25, 2017
    • No, you misunderstand my motive … you have given us a definition. A rare thing indeed from a man of so many words. And the definition you gave covers both the Voynich and the Tamam Shud mysteries.
      True theories are imperfect, as you said, and they can only be measured by the truths they contain.

      January 25, 2017
      • In the original context that you lifted the quotation from, what I meant was that when people present you with theories that try to explain away everything, you should strongly consider running a mile. Or maybe two.

        The main Somerton Man equivalent of Voynich hoax theories is without any doubt espionage theories. They provide nothing solid that any historian could work with, yet seek to explain away everything as spycraft or whatever.

        January 25, 2017
  9. I wouldn’t expect an historian who specialises in decrypting ancient manuscripts to have anything solid to work with in an espionage scenario … his horses are for different courses, would you agree?

    January 26, 2017
  10. Being a historian is about working with evidence in depth, while being acutely aware of the reliability and provenance of that evidence. It doesn’t matter whether that evidence relates to ancient manuscripts or 1940s Soviet spies, the methodology is essentially identical.

    And no Somerton Man spying evidence worth a tinker’s cuss has yet turned up, as far as I can see.

    January 26, 2017
  11. The evidence a historian must work with is what the spy is trained not to leave behind. In the case of the Somerton Man, the only things left behind were his body, his train and bus tickets and the Tamam Shud slip in his pocket.

    January 27, 2017
    • Ah, then it would seem that you haven’t quite seen the difference between explaining and explaining away.

      The ‘spy’ in that kind of espionage scenario isn’t actually explaining anything, just arranging things to look just so, while also tidying up many (though never quite all) of the loose ends – in other words, explaining away.

      January 27, 2017
  12. Whereas you dismiss the espionage / spy scenario out of hand. (edited)

    January 27, 2017

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