But I was always told...

MIKE FALLOW
Last updated 13:38 07/04/2014
Max Cryer
FAIRFAX NZ
Author Max Cryer.

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It doesn't make him a prophet, but let the record show Max Cryer's biblical prediction was fulfilled.

Strictly speaking, it was more of a cinematic one. Though he hadn't yet seen the big-screen epic Noah he was curious how the producers would have the animals show up.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they stick by the Saint Danny Kaye version, " he chuckled.

And then, as befits a man whose spoken voice already has some musical cadences, he wafted into song: "The animals went in two by two . . ."

We've checked the film out and, oh dear, there they go, into the ark, not in an orderly queue but definitely in pairs.

Problem being?

Well, it depends who you ask, but for Cryer it's entirely a matter of inaccuracy. At one point the Bible does say that Noah is told to take two of every kind, but it's not that simple. Elsewhere the report says it's pairs only for every unclean beast.

"Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female."

Cryer is as puzzled as the rest of us why it should be seven, an oddly odd number. He gently dismisses our helpful suggestion that perhaps there's an implicit sanction for divorce in there somewhere.

"Oh no, " says he. "That's a delicate matter . . ."

His new book Is It True? is neither indelicate nor gratuitously reproachful even though he cheerfully attests to being a pedant and, however cherished a story may be, he cannot recall a single case of correcting it with a heavy heart.

"In fact, I trod with caution so as not to cause other people to have a heavy heart."

Easier said than done, of course. We all may be perfectly happy to learn that by a translation mistake the Brits shaved about 5 inches' height off the quite normally sized Frenchman Napoleon Bonaparte, or that your flushing toilet water doesn't swirl clockwise or anticlockwise depending on which hemisphere you're in, or that Betty Crocker never existed, or that until comparatively recently the rule was pink for boys, blue for girls.

That's all well and good. But I, for one, flatly refuse to read the paragraphs about the famous graveyard vigil of Greyfriars Bobby, faithful wee thing that he undoubtedly was in spite of what Cryer might have to say on the matter.

"People, " Cryer concedes, "don't always like being told the truth."

Exactly. In fact, the question must be asked: Is this not a book that sooner or later invites that famous line from a desperately overacting Jack Nicholson: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"?

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After all, once we learn the extent to which common knowledge can be widespread error, what can we do with the fresh information except be annoying?

Do we really want to be the person who pipes up, time and again, in conversations: "Yes, a lot of people think that, but actually . . ."

Or will we just silently clench up and grow our ulcers?

Happily, it turns out the truth isn't necessarily a charmless interloper into our perfectly enjoyable social fairytales.

Look, here's a feelgood Southland entry. Much as our American friends tend to claim instant coffee was invented in Chicago in 1901, it had already been on sale in New Zealand for 11 years, courtesy of Invercargill man David Strang (patent 3158 in 1890)

In places, the author is capable of exposing inaccuracy without in the least begrudging it. Consider the aching World War II ballad about bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.

You'd get a hell of a crick in your neck standing on those cliffs waiting to see one. They never go near the place, being native to the United States. US songwriters Walter Kent and Nat Burton wrote that song with good intent but "it never occurred to them to ask".

We are now better informed, but Cryer is entirely happy for us to be untroubled by the fact. As is he.

"The point was that when Vera Lynn sang it, it became exactly what they intended, a song of cheer and loyalty and brave hearts. No-one bothered to think about it. The song did what it was intended to do. It cheered people up. So the charm remains . . ."

Many of Cryer's stories highlight the influence of art. Our concept of angels harks back to romantic painters who either didn't bother to read the Bible, or found it didn't really work for them.

"[Biblical] angels are male; they don't have wings or halos; they never play harps, they play trumpets; they are all men. Somehow this transferred itself to romantic images of beautiful blonde ladies with halos and wings."

And Salome's dance of the seven veils that was so disappointingly left off your illustrated Bibles? An invention of Oscar Wilde.

What gave rise to this whole fact-finding Odyssey, we hear you ask? Look no further than those paragons of considered caution - politicians.

"I couldn't help myself, " Cryer recalls. "I heard, a couple of years ago, one politician refer to another as having his head in the sand like an ostrich. I knew ostriches didn't do that. A week later, in Parliament, someone mentioned something about Delilah cutting Samson's hair. Which she didn't."

After that, without feeling any predatory urge to hunting for dodgy stories, Cryer found that questions started to spring to mind unbidden. Serendipitous discoveries awaited.

"Once the brain takes on a pilot light, " he reflects, "it increases your alertness."

As for research, Cryer is not a graduate of Google University. He doesn't entirely disregard the internet, but treats it only as a possible stepping-stone towards an authoritative source.

"And that source is not Wikipedia." 

 

- The Southland Times

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