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17 May 2012
Truth stranger than fiction
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Truth is stranger than fiction. So wrote the master of aphorism, Mark Twain, who went on to explain. Fiction has to remain within the bounds of possibilities if it is to be credible: the truth has no such limitations.
We've seen some strange truth recently. At the Leveson Inquiry, News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch swore he'd been misled. That the mega-corporation's all-powerful driving force had been kept in the dark about its illegal hacking operations.
Murdoch denied seeking to influence political life in the UK, though he admitted he was more hands-on in directing the political stance of The Sun than of his other papers.
Really? Did he honestly have nothing to do with The Sun's 1992 headline, "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights"? The Sun certainly thought its personal attacks on Kinnock had destroyed him: famously its headline on 11th April 1992 read, "It's the Sun wot won it"- a political catchphrase ever since.
Fast-forward to 1997, The Guardian mocking Murdoch: "It’s The Sun wot's switched sides to back Blair". Tony Blair had convinced Murdoch's empire that his New Labour was the side to back in that election: The Sun told its readers to vote for him.
You couldn't make it up, as they say. Coincidentally, I’ve been making up some fiction recently. Back in February I wrote about the hell of finishing off a musical wot I wrote (to misquote comedian Ernie Wise): we're now rehearsing for performances of Flotsam in my school on 30th June and 2nd July.
The story's set in the near future: the Day After Tomorrow, you might say, but without Hollywood ice-effects. Imagine a Britain hit by fuel crisis, rising sea levels, tsunami or other catastrophic weather events, resulting food riots and society in meltdown. Under those circumstances feral children live on the streets, surviving by scavenging or stealing.
My central character's a politician with an ambitious but ruthless vision for rebuilding society. I started writing the show in the late 1990s, stuck it in a drawer for ten years, and came back to it twelve months ago. By then it was ready for a great deal of updating and rewriting: that's inevitable.
But the politician at the centre has changed little in a decade. In 1998 I positioned him as running on a "New Morality" ticket. Back then, Blair famously "didn't do God": my character does so shamelessly, and likes to be seen going to church with his family. But otherwise he's (with hindsight) painfully Blair-like, constantly stressing the need both to "Give a hard edge to goodness" and, adopting tabloid language, to get tough on scroungers and welfare-spongers.
In my recent revisions further political sound-bites have crept in. "We’re all in this together," he preaches: "We must roll our sleeves up and get on with it". My character gets too close to the Press – and, at the end (without giving too much away), discovers that all the wrongdoing, including persecution and abduction of street-children, is done in his name.
At times I've feared I'm over-exaggerating that politician, the ambition and vanity that blind him as he claws his way to power. Over-exaggerating? Now I fear I've drawn him too mild. It's clear a present-day politician would have been significantly blinder, greedier - and certainly cosier with business and the media than I've painted mine.
I haven't dared push that character too far. He simply wouldn't be believable. Only in real life, apparently, are politicians' behaviour, vanity and myopia so mind-bogglingly beyond belief. Mark Twain was right: fiction just can't compare with truth.
Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School and a NET Leading Thinker. The views expressed here are personal.
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