Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Telling tales

One day, when she was a little girl, my mother lost her temper with her older sister, Dinah, who had been telling lies about her. In her still barely articulate way, she burst out, “You, our Dinah, you stop telling your b’oody ‘tories!”

After that, in her northern working class home, the Conservatives were always referred to as b’oody Tories.

But the point is that in those days ‘story’ was another word for ‘lie’.

No matter where it came from, however much truth there might once have been in it, a story was something you made up. Telling stories, when my mother was a little girl, and still when I was a little boy, meant lying. A tell-tale was someone who told stories about someone else to get them into trouble at school or at home. My mother wasn’t going to have any of that from their Dinah!

The use of the word has changed dramatically since then. Your story now is what gives meaning to your life. We all have one to tell. Or so we are told.

The point is that the difference between fact and fiction has become blurred, which is where ‘fake news’ comes from. Fiction is fake fact. A story is something you make up, a figment of your imagination, a lie. If you’re telling stories, presenting fiction as fact, that makes you a liar.

Novelists need not, as a class, be considered liars. Historical novelists however should watch their step. History told as a story is not history, a story being by definition a falsehood. History should be left to historians because, unlike novelists, they don’t have to make it exciting, which is why most people read Hilary Mantel and Jack Higgins, rather than C.V.Wedgwood and A.J.P.Taylor.

Journalists and broadcasters try to make their news stories exciting too. News programmes on radio and television begin and end with dramatic music. The news itself is presented as drama, enhanced with sound effects and eye-catching images. Television documentaries use the techniques of television drama to capture and hold the viewer’s attention, something to hook you in, a gripping narrative with unexpected twists and turns, a surprise at the end. A half-hour documentary covers only a fraction of the information that could be given in a lecture of the same length. But then, who but the most conscientious student would still be listening?

Soldiers who return from war are notorious for their taciturnity.  Funny stories about other soldiers are all their wives and children are likely to hear. Most of the First World War poets didn’t return to tell the tale and Second World War poets, as a class, don’t exist. Only Charles Causley, in his idiosyncratic, enigmatic way, managed to say something about it by pretending to write about something else.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is too big to fit into a story. It would have to be dismembered and reassembled. Historians have too much respect for the truth to do that. Each piece has to be treated with the same respect as every other piece. If not, something of the whole will be lost. The truth can never be the satisfying whole that we expect in a story. Truth is made up of fragments. History is not a story to be told but an assemblage of facts which must be examined and interpreted, re-examined and re-interpreted. A story, unlike history, has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Novelists don’t set out to tell lies, but that is what they have to do to hold our attention. Dramatists do it even more blatantly with actors as their accomplices, pretending to be real people, impersonating reality. Grown-up audiences are as willing to be taken in as children listening to a bedtime story.

Stories are everywhere in modern life. Fiction is how life is represented, the impression of things, not things themselves, never the real thing. The difference between fact and fiction has been forgotten as the two walk hand in hand through our world. The West Yorkshire Playhouse, once my local theatre, used to call itself ‘the home of incredible stories’ or, to put it another way, unbelievable lies. Perhaps they should have been commended for admitting it.

Charles Causley wrote a poem called In a Junior School, dedicated to Ted Hughes.

When I asked
What the poet did, a girl said,
‘Make up true stories
Of people and animals
In his head‘.

When I told them
He was also a farmer,
They said they thought
Farmers didn’t have time to write
Stories and poems.

The poem ends, as Charles Causley’s poems all do, enigmatically.

A boy turned to me. ‘Poet and farmer!
Sounds good. Which is harder?’
I said, ‘What would you say?’
‘I’ll let you know,’ he said.
Went his way.

In another poem called Stanley Spencer’s ‘A Village in Heaven’ he describes the incredible story that the artist paints and wonders what truth lies behind it.

What is possessing
  These women, these children,
    Bouncing, ballooning,
Lazing and loving,
  Shamelessly, aimlessly
    Outside the Park?

Noticing the shortage of men in the painting, he asks:

Where are the men?
  Are they stilled on some battlefield,
    Silent, undead?
Was it for them
  That these few Flanders’ poppies
    Loyally bled?

Finally, he turns his attention to Stanley Spencer himself.

There goes the painter
  (The pudding-hat painter)
    Turning his back
On the women, the children,
  Keeping his answers
    Tight-close to his chest
    But perhaps that is best.

War and the silence of soldiers are never far from Causley’s mind. A story for him is as likely to be a way of hiding the truth as of telling it. In To My Father he uses a story from his childhood to try to find his way to another truth.

‘It was the First War brought your father down,’
My aunts would say. ‘Nobody in our clan
Fell foul of that t.b.’

He remembers seeing his father racked with coughing.

A thin and bony man (as I am now),
Long-faced, large-eyed, struggling to speak to me.

Then, a recurring dream.

Seventy years on, he strolls into my dreams:
Immaculate young countryman, his mouth
Twitching with laughter. Always walks ahead
Of me, and I can never catch him up.

I speak his name. He never seems to hear.
I know that one day he must stop and turn
His face to me. Wait for me, father. Wait.

Writer or painter, keeping his (or her) cards close to his (or her) chest, makes up true stories in his (or her) head. Made up true stories, also known as lies, are slippery. They sometimes tell the truth and sometimes hide it, but they are not themselves true, they are made up.

It is important to remember that. Poet and farmer, which is harder? Fact or fiction, which should we believe?

One comment on “Telling tales

  1. Barbara Burke
    December 15, 2019

    Interesting as ever Neil. Written in the light of our present day politics? Another thought strikes me, Truth is not necessarily fact but a lie is never fact?


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This entry was posted on December 14, 2019 by in Fiction, History, Literature and tagged , .
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