Thursday, 2 March 2017

Telling Stories

Stick it in yer family album

Nowadays, it seems everyone thinks the answer to everything is having a good story to tell or, if you prefer, a convincing narrative. From advertising to politics, both success and failure are pinned on the box-office rating of the story that was told to the public. Why did we lose the election? We failed to get our narrative across. Why is our brand a success? Because we have given it a place in our customers' personal stories. It seems as if the story-arc and character-development nostrums of Hollywood may have overflowed into real life, which is troubling.

Now, when I was little, "telling stories" was synonymous with "lying". As in, "Michael says the cup jumped off the table, but I think he's just telling stories, mummy!" (Hey! Hey! I'm just providing a convincing narrative here! What are you, my sister, or a critic?). I think there used to be a healthy presumption that stories were rarely co-extensive with the truth, and that life was seldom – for which read never – as neat as that. Or, to put it another way, that a good story needed to be better than real life, which was both the source of its satisfaction, but also solid grounds for suspicion. "Too good to be true" is a reliable metric to apply to life. Face facts, Jack: those beans are just beans, and you've just been conned out of the family cow. And Jill: exactly how did Jack come to fall down the hill? Was this before or after the ruckus about the beans? And why the hell would anyone go up the hill to fetch water, eh? It's just not a convincing story, young lady.

Parish register 1782, Westruther, Scotland

Some years ago, I knew an academic whose speciality was the then emerging field of "life-writing". At the time, although I appreciated the democratic impulse behind the urge to encourage "ordinary" people to research and tell their stories, this seemed to me a curiously narrow, narcissistic, not to say voyeuristic project. History, surely, was not simply an aggregate of autobiographies and family histories and, besides, wasn't everyone these days deeply suspicious of historical storytelling, with its "grand narratives", blinkered focus on "our island story", and all that? Of course, that was before (following whatever original impulse) I began researching my own family history, and realised that, "narrow, narcissistic, not to say voyeuristic" as the project might be, it was also deeply fascinating and a lot of fun.

But family history research poses an interesting question: just how far back does one's personal "story" actually go? Does the unfortunate incident with the vicar's daughter in 1817 still cast a shadow 200 years later? Did your grandfather's terror-filled days of being shelled in 1917 somehow pass on a fear of sudden, loud noises? Certainly, your mother's suppressed anger at losing her promising career to give birth and care for you will have left some kind of mark. Certainly, your own failures, triumphs, and peculiarities will have shaped your own children's lives – some of which will be uniquely yours, and some of which will have been passed to you from your parents, and in turn were passed to them by theirs (and so on back to Adam and Eve who, according to recent studies of DNA, lived 135,000 years ago, but probably never met). This Be The Verse, indeed. In the end, though, most family history is hugely speculative and requires an awful lot of "real" history to flesh out and clothe the bare skeletons of dates, places, and occupations that are all that can be exhumed from documentary sources. It's hardly ever a "story" at all, but a simple roll call of ancestors, who will have been something rather indeterminate between, at best, the "mute inglorious Milton" of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and, at worst, the village idiot.

1841 census, Bygrave, N. Herts
"Ag Labs" all, boy!

There is another important question. How far does not knowing one's own back-story affect one's ability to live a full, authentic life? Probably less than one thinks. Who you think you are and who you choose to be must matter more than where, objectively, you fit into any number of diachronic narratives. But, equally, how far does that ignorance render one a blank canvas, onto which politicians, advertisers and other manipulators can try to inscribe whatever narrative they find expedient? With the result that "we" – that is, people like us, people who, we are told, share our story-arc – may find ourselves encouraged to despise the undeserving poor ("benefit queens" and "dole scroungers") or the idle rich ("hooray Henrys" and "trustafarians"), or to loathe "Guardian readers" or "Daily Mail readers", or any of the other factitious tribal feuds and rivalries that give a vivid but false colouring to the news and to opinion. It takes unusual strength of character to reject the script you're being handed and start improvising your own.

Knowing and sharing our stories – personal, familial, national, cultural – may not mean that we know who we are ("I" is always elusive, always a work in progress) but it does mean we know by what different routes we each of us got here, and this may help to expand the boundaries of our sense of fellow-feeling, of who is included in "us". Which, if nothing else, is a powerful antidote to those toxic, exclusionary stories that enchant the more unreflective members of our community.

1861 census, Bygrave, N.Herts

What is more uncertain, though, is whether the daily struggle to follow so many contradictory narratives and counter-narratives is making us more or less aware that we are constantly being told stories, in the sense of being misled and lied to, and that any story is just a story, and probably too good to be true?  Or does this exhausting struggle overwhelm us, as if we were minor characters in some poorly-written serial blockbuster, with an over-elaborate plot, improbable dialogue, and too many unlikely coincidences, so that we simply resign ourselves to our incomprehensible walk-on part in this preposterous fiction? Whatever!

Which may lead the more independent-minded to that most modern moment of revelation: No, wait! Everyone is just making this up as they go along! Everyone! It seems nobody knows how the story will end, and practically no-one knows or cares what happened in the previous episodes... You just have to hope that, from somewhere in your back-story, you have been bequeathed the ability to extemporise your way to a satisfactory denouement.


Zouk Delors said...

A really entertaining story in this vein is Mark Steel's "Who Do I Think I Am", a live show which he is/was touring, but also recorded for BBC Radio4, in a program which is still available (in the UK, at least) for a couple more weeks:

Very interesting and extremely funny too.

Mike C. said...


There's been a long-running TV series, "Who Do You Think You Are?", in which assorted celebrities have their forebears researched, which can sometimes be both surprising (as in Steel's case) and moving (Holocaust victims, etc.). Odd, really, as meeting various archive-rats and local history bods armed with sheafs of photocopied documents is not what you'd think of as compelling viewing, but apparently it is very popular.


seany said...

Mike very early in my life's journey I came to the astounding conclusion that everyone, self included were winging it, nothing I've encountered since has led me to believe any differently, the sad thing is it has not made my journey through this valley of tears any better or worse' just more accepting of human frailty.

Mike C. said...


A good lesson to learn as early as possible, and the right conclusion to draw from it, imho!


Anonymous said...


we have two boys, and as a "modern dad" I attended their births (to support my wife, or to stand in the way of the midwife, either way). I got the impression that our kids arrived in the world with their character already finished. Consequently, the same upbringing resulted in two markedly different individuals. Long story short, I don't think that family history has a marked effect - with two exceptions: If you as a parent lead an "active" life, with lots of curiosity and interests, you *might* be able to spark something in your kids. The other extreme would be bad upbringing like neglect, abuse and domestic violence, which will traumatise a human being for his lifetime. Even in this latter case, the extent to which traumatisation occurs depends on the individual (called "resilience").

In addition, I believe the "story" or the "truth" in one's life is found in one's actions: What we did, what we created, how we act and react in certain situations - something like a phenomenology of one's being in the world.

Best, Thomas

PS: Life is a pretty dull adventure game - but the graphical visualisation is damn good!

Zouk Delors said...

Yes, I was aware of that program, though I don't think I've ever actually watched it. The title of Mark's show is (fairly obviously?) a riff on that, and he refers to it in his monologue. I really recommend WDITIA (unless for some reason you can't stand Mark Steel). I was, in fact, in the studio audience for the recording and lucky (skilful, actually) enough to get a front seat, but I still couldn't wait to hear it again when broadcast -- and not just so I could listen out for me laughing.

Mike C. said...


Two observations:

Having two boys (or two girls) is one thing, having one of each is more of a challenge to one's assumptions about upbringing, etc.! Also, having a father who actually takes part in the child-raising must make a considerable difference, I'm convinced. Compare with British public schoolboys, who spend most of the year (from age 8 or even earlier) separated from both parents, and subjected to the inevitable bullying, etc., and whose emotional development is often severely compromised.

My grandfather was illegitimate (his mother was probably a prostitute, who put false info on his birth certificate in the Liverpool workhouse infirmary where he was born) and abandoned him with his brother into a children's home in 1896. Tough gig... I think this affected him considerably, my mother quite a bit (although she knew none of the facts), and me somewhat. Discovering this in mid-life was enlightening, and explained a lot of things to me.


Mike C. said...


Not mad keen on Mark Steel (he's too fond of the sound of his own voice, and doesn't seem to realise how patronising it is to "do" other people's accents, his stock in trade) though he can be very funny. I'll re-listen with greater interest, and see if I can spot a distinctive laugh... Talking of which, I notice a lot of BBC comedy gigs have been haunted by some woman with a hysterical and over-loud laugh -- you'd think they'd pay her to stay away.


Omer said...

Not sure if you're referring to Paul Anderson's film The Master, but it did remind me of it. How we manage to not be lost is surreal, and I guess out of an innate sense of self-preservation we manage to not get too weird (for the most part.)

If those framed pictures are an indication, your family album must be interesting.

Mike C. said...


Not seen that film, so can't comment.

I'm very pleased with those frames, and they'll probably be showing up here a lot. I've been looking for a set of Victorian "carte de visite" album pages for ages, and finally found a whole stack. But, yes, I'm descended from a long line of enigmas...