Based on a true story

I have spent the morning cataloguing all these blogs since I began writing them in February 2016. There have been 120 before this one, amounting to more than 100,000 words. The reason for the catalogue is that I have started to forget what I have already written and need to refresh my memory. Not that anyone else would notice, but I might.  

There are some recurrent themes, not surprisingly. One of them concerns the search for truth. The subject has permeated my thoughts for as long as I can remember. All three of my novels (and thousands of other people’s novels) have, in different ways, dealt with perceptions of truth.

In The Breaking of Eggs, Feliks Zhukovski needs to deconstruct the truth of his own life as he deconstructs the ideology upon which it has been based. In Trading Futures, Matthew Oxenhay struggles for an explanation for his own life choices, while failing to remember key elements of his past. In Things We Nearly Knew, the entire novel deals with murky, nigh-impossible distinctions between what was true, what might have been true and what the various characters thought or hoped was true.

So I don’t need much encouragement to return to the theme, and it has been provided this week by an article in The Guardian by the historian Antony Beevor, discussing the factual accuracy (or lack of it) in war films. My heart goes out to him. When Hollywood meets History, there can only be one winner. If you have spent your life painstakingly trying to reconstruct the truth, that is a bitter realisation. Particularly since a blockbuster will be seen and remembered by far more people than any history book.

There is nothing new in this situation, and nothing new in newspapers or books or other media offering up travesties of the truth as if they were fact. Sometimes the lies are deliberate, sometimes accidental, sometimes the product of indifference as to whether they are true or not, but perhaps more often because the writer associates the truth with his or her own perceptions.

Nothing new about that, but plenty to be concerned about, as an avalanche of falsehoods sweeps through not only social media, but mainstream media as well. Donald Trump is right to complain about ‘fake news’. Fake news abounds – albeit much of it from his own mouth. His spokesperson has even invented the concept of ‘alternative facts’.

The perceptions of both President Trump and President Putin seem to be that the truth is infinitely elastic. (Or, as the film director Jean-Jacques Annaud said to Antony Beevor, “who can tell where myth begins and truth ends?”) Whatever the circumstances, you allege a bunch of facts which bear little or no relation to reality. When circumstances change, so do the facts. As Keynes didn’t put it, when my mind changes, I change the facts; what do you do, sir?

The intention appears to be to obliterate the truth: to create the impression that truth is so fragile, so nebulous, that it is impossible to know what it is, and not worth the effort of trying to discover. The truth is lost in a blizzard of competing facts.

I do not personally hold the truth to be sacrosanct because – in any set of circumstances – there is usually more than one honest interpretation of the truth. But I do hold the search for truth to be sacrosanct. It is imperative to make the attempt to tell where myth begins and truth ends. And I do hold the facts to be sacrosanct – in the proper sense of ‘facts’ as things that can be empirically proved; neutral because uncontestable; shorn of all explanations and spin (that bit comes later). As the narrator says in Things We Nearly Knew: “Things that happened, happened. Things that didn’t happen, didn’t happen. Maintaining a distinction between the two is fundamental.”

Hollywood does not lack for vocal critics of Donald Trump, yet it needs to look at the beam in its own eye first (as, to a lesser extent, does the British film industry). In Antony Beevor’s words, “I despair at the way American and British movie-makers feel they have every right to play fast and loose with the facts, yet have the arrogance to imply that their version is as good as the truth.” This, exactly, is what Hollywood complains of in Trump.

America is hardly the only country where myth and reality get so tangled up as to often seem interchangeable, but it is certainly a sad example of that, and always has been. The myth-makers, many of them in Hollywood, have relentlessly portrayed an image of their country at odds with the reality. Now that they have a President who does the same thing, they are in no position to complain.

I no longer live in hope that any of this will ever change. Events, both historical and contemporary, are perceived in different ways by different people, often based on contradictory sets of alleged ‘facts’. More and more, and not only because I have belatedly come to study it seriously, the subject I most revere is history. To be sure, historians are not immune from bias, or from the selective use of data. But, for all their faults, they (along with archaeologists, but not many others, and certainly not many journalists) are mostly devoted to establishing facts and constructing the most honest, most plausible truth behind them.

In the unlikely event that I ever write my autobiography, I think I shall sub-title it ‘Based on a True Story’.