Saturday, 13 November 2010


I see that good old George W has published his memoirs. Did he, I wonder, write them himself? Or did he, like the Teapot Queen, get some minion to put his thoughts down on paper? We shall probably never know, but this question, burning as it is, is not what has driven me to create a rare blog. No, it is the ever present worry for an author that, somehow, in writing his story, he has committed plagiarism.

The question is prompted by the fact that the creators of Fela, the musical which has been wowing 'em on Broadway and which is shortly to open at London's National Theatre, are being sued by writer Carlos Moore for three million pounds. He claims that large chunks of his biography of the Nigerian muscician Fela Kuti were nicked in conceiving the musical.

The courts will have to decide whether the claim is true - ah yes, more money for the lawyers! - and the accusation of lifting "entire portions" of the book would, one would think, take the case out of the realms of accidential plagiarism. It is this area, however, which poses problems for the honest author, particularly the writer of historical fiction.

In thinking about the Fella case, my thoughts went back to my recent re-reading of the Kipling classic story Kim. It is, without a doubt, the best novel that the old Indian Hand ever wrote and, apart from its intrinsic value as a rattling good story, it paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the North West Frontier in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As a result, I read it, along with many other books, when I was researching the period and the territory for my Fonthill novel, The Road to Kandahar.

Dipping into the old classic the other day my eye was caught by a simple but evocative Kipling phrase, "they rode above the bold birches that signalled, as though with a ruler, the end of the flora and fauna...." It sounded familiar. In fact, it sounded dreadfully familiar. Turning to the hard back version of Road, I found it reproduced on page 250, almost word for word.

Had I deliberately copied it from Kim? Surely not - even if the great novel was out of copyright and the Kipling Estate would have been rather unlikely to have sued. No. Somehow the phrase, exactly right for what Kipling was describing, had lodged in my mind and I had trotted it out, as, I thought, freshly burnished from my own imagination.

Perhaps we all do it subconsciously. I only hope that the creators of Fella have as innocent a defence...