Truth, Licence & Total Fiction

A tortured course

I went to this wedding once, like you do. It was alright. The groom was a mate and the bride looked pretty fit in that dress. We all said in the car-park. Lucky bloke. So anyway, I’d gone out for a smoke in the churchyard just before the end of it and this old bloke out there started on about how he’d been in the navy.

Sam Coleridge. The coolest droog that ever lived in the West Country. Probably.
Coleridge. Almost too cool to read at school.

And that was the thing. He wouldn’t stop talking.

He was going on about how they were on this ship somewhere it was really cold, up in the Artic or somewhere, when this massive bird flew over and landed on this ship he was on and they give it some chips. Then it started coming back for more chips all the time until he was a bit pissed one day, this old bloke and he shot it. Then all this bad stuff kicked off on the ship and all his mates blamed him for killing the albatross and he had to wear it round his neck for I don’t know, years. Well, months then. I couldn’t really follow it by then, it all got weird. I reckon he was on something. He didn’t talk like he was right in the head. But the way he said it all, I had to listen to the end. It didn’t make sense, all of it, but it was the way he said it. It was like I’d had a bang on the head or something when he’d finished.

Except it didn’t happen

Recognise the plot? It’s long-term substance abuser with addiction issues Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner. The voice is similar to the way people spoke in the same area Colerdidge lived but when I was growing up there. Similar to but different. As Marlowe and Pinter nearly said, the past is another country and besides, it’s all made up.

Facts get blurred in fiction. Or to un-confuse that thought, when you write stuff you take ideas, and being human and being lazy everyone I’ve ever heard of starts off writing about something that happened to them. Then they alter it. The thing that really happened could be anything, a major thing in your life like a car-crash or your parents’ death, or remembering utterly trivial, like tasting the madeleine biscuits that were the key to Proust’s past, or seeing a child’s footprints in the snow one day.

 

Because it’s fiction

Some people restore old cars. Years ago there was a film called Two Lane Blacktop. Two long-haired hippie weirdo freaks as they used to be called, have this old 1955 Chevrolet they stripped-down and souped-up and they go around the country doing illegal races for money. Then they meet this girl, like you do. She sleeps with one of them. But then the other one fancies her a bit but nothing really happens but then they meet this older bloke and get in a bet with him about whose car is fastest and she gets in his car and the race becomes not just about the money or cars. Sort of. Maybe. Or it could be about Vietnam in some unexplained way, the way you have to say every American film of the 1970s was.

Fair turned moi 'ead it did, an' all like.
The car and sort-of-star in Two Lane Blacktop. Fair turned moi ‘ead it did an’ all like, that film did. In my experience her expression simply means ‘my jeans are much too tight.’

Whatever. As some people clearly get confused about fact and fiction I’ll let you into a secret. Although that might really have happened and I’ve no evidence one way or the other, here’s a total 100% fact. It didn’t happen to Will Cory who wrote the film and got $100,000 for doing it, or the actors in it. Or that way. Or then. If it happened at all. The film was made in 1971. Back in the 1960s Will Cory had travelled across America. Yes, people really did wear denim shirts without being ironic. And *gasp* sometimes they even went to bed with each other without being married and *faint* sometimes someone else would have liked to do that with one of the people involved and didn’t know exactly how to say that. I know! Who’d have thought it? But it still didn’t really happen. Because it’s a film. Are you getting the hang of this yet?

Still confused? Ok. Again in the 1950s a company called Plymouth made a car called the Fury. Because they did. In America. Anyway, this car’s about 20 years old when this kid at school bought it to do up, except the more involved he gets with the car it’s as if it changes him. As he repairs the old car until it looks like new this kid becomes withdrawn, humourless and cynical, but at the same time more confident and self-assured. But that’s quite enough about me. Oh look! See what I did there?

That’s the basic plot of Steven King’s book/film/bank balance adjuster Christine. Two boys like the same girl at school. One of them gets this old car. Except the car is an elemental that kills people when nobody’s driving it and I’ve said too much already. Good film. Except that didn’t happen either.

Once he had some money Steven King liked to restore old cars, like the 1958 Plymouth Fury in the film. Or not like. The real 1958 Fury was only made in white, not red. The one in the book had four doors, the one in the film and the real one only two. One day Mr King had a thought. What if the milometer ran backwards, the way everyone used to say car dealers wound it back to make it look newer? What if that really happened? What if there’s this ghost or evil spirit in the car and as the milometer runs backwards it really does get new again?

Really good. Except it isn't true.
Really good. Except it isn’t true.

Sorry, but I’m going to have to spoil it all now. That never really happened either. Except bits of it did.

Here’s the clue. Steven King probably did stand there with a busted old milometer and wound it back just for a laugh before he had a good look at how it fitted back in and ordered a new one from the parts catalogue. Almost certainly. Totally certainly, his car didn’t repair itself while he did it.

So is Christine ‘about’ Steven King’s restoration project? Is Two Lane Blacktop ‘about’ Will Cory’s road trip? Is Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner ‘about’ having your Saturday ruined when you thought you were going for a serious drink with your mates and end-up talking to this old bloke about albatrosses?

Bits. Sort of. But not really. From an idea. From something that did really happen, but not the way it got written, because writing it does what writing always does, it changes the real into the unreal, for effect, for a story, for fun.

So next time anyone has a couple of drinks after work and comes to my door demanding I don’t do any more poetry because they know who it’s about and they’re watching me in future, or someone else asks me online why a poem shows a me full of self-pity and how come as that’s not the me they know and have I got a split personality or something, allow me to commend to you Two Lane Blacktop, Christine and The Ancient Mariner. All based on things that really did happen. A bit. But whisper who dares as Christopher Robin put it: not exactly the way they came out when they were written.

Sorry to have to break it to you. It’s like Father Christmas. But that’s why fiction exists, to make real life more interesting. To parabel-ise if that’s a thing. To entertain. But fiction isn’t fact. Poetry isn’t a documentary. It’s about themes, the sorts of things that happen to everybody, that people recognise, which is why people can relate to them. What it isn’t is an authentic record. Actors, someone reading aloud, didn’t really have those things happen. Things are either fiction or they are not. And when you’re dealing with life, separating fact and fiction is important.

 

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The Marine, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

 

Postscript

And if you’re wondering why that all seems a bit familiar, it might be that this is that you’re thinking of:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

All Things Bright is probably the best remembered of Mrs Alexander’s 1848 Hymns For Little Children, published considerably after The Ancient Mariner and Mrs Alexander probably wouldn’t thank you for saying she nicked the idea from mostly out-of-his-head-but-so-cool-with-it Coleridge. But you can see the obvious influence. But which one, if any, is true?

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