Stern mother reproving mendacious child: "Have you been telling stories?"
Child: "Yup! Good, isn’t it?"
I’ve never actually heard the stern-mother line cited above, but it’s enough of a cliché to be familiar. And, of course, the admonished child never replies like that, but gets busy with the old quaking and quailing, convinced that ‘telling stories’ is a terrible crime except at bedtime, and definitely not something you want to be caught doing if there’s a stern-mother sniffing about in the background. I’m not persuaded this is a very useful life-lesson. Telling-stories is a handy way of getting through the day. It avoids unpleasantness, provides a structure to living that life itself is often woefully remiss in supplying, and it can make people feel a hell of a lot better.
When I was about seven or eight, I went on my first school trip. My class was taken to town to visit the Post Office Tower and London Zoo. I bought a plastic crocodile. I thought that was rather brave of me. I had a horror of reptiles, especially realistic looking reptiles like this crocodile, but on the strength of that vanquished phobia, the crocodile and I became inseparable.
On the bus home, I sat in the back with Bernice Winters, just the two of us . . . and the crocodile. I’m not quite sure how we got there. Well, I know how the crocodile got there. I took him with me. But whether it was Bernice or me or serendipity that arranged for us to have the backseat of the bus to ourselves, I wouldn’t know. Maybe Bernice was the only other person on board who could cope with crocodiles without having a fit of the screaming abdabs. Anyhow, we talked all the way home, utterly involved with one another, celebrating what had been a really rather brilliant day, and after a while we held hands, or at least she held hands, because I only had the one to spare, the other sweaty paw still being clasped round my plastic crocodile.
After a while, Bernice Winters gazed into my eyes and said to me: “You know, you’re my favourite boy in the class.”
I gazed back at her, still hanging tightly onto my plastic crocodile in case he made a break for it, and said: “And you’re my favourite girl in the class.”
She wasn’t. I liked her a lot, liked her enough to nearly accidentally circumcise myself at a later date on her behalf, but that’s another story. She was not, though, my favourite girl in the class. My favourite girls in the class were Julia Hale and Joanna Eatwell, who were both prettier than Bernice Winters, and part of the gang that got together in the playground at break to play kissing games. But noblesse oblige, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and we were having a tender moment in the back the bus with my plastic crocodile. Instinctively, without ever having been consciously instructed in the art, I knew that the situation called for a little discreet hypocrisy. So I lied. Or rather, I told a story.
The trouble is, truth telling can get you into hellish difficulties. Fast-forward a couple of decades. Chum of mine due to get married. He’d been quite a useful chum, as it happens. He’s a doctor now, big time consultant. I take a certain pride in that. I feel that I contributed to the development of his career. One of his earliest prescriptions, you see, was providing me with my first joint when we were fifteen. Now that’s what I call a doctor. But I digress.
Chum of mine due to get married. I meet his bride-to-be for the first time. Very attractive woman. You could see why he might want to play kissing games with her in the playground. She had her best friend there, whom I’m willing to wager wasn’t one of the more popular girls in the playground games, and who struck me as being a tad too prim. She had a reproving look about her, something Calvinistic, faintly reminiscent of a Scottish terrier. The evening was a bit tense. My chum was reforming himself to become a married man and it probably didn’t help a lot to have me barreling in waving a beer can about and scattering ash all over the carpet. I could see by the way that wife and friend were sat on the sofa giving me the gimlet eye that I wasn’t making a very good impression. However, it didn’t much matter what they thought of me. What I thought of them was rather more vital.
The big problem was that it seemed to me that my chum and the wife-to-be had zilch in common and that getting married wasn’t really a very good idea. I told him so, too. Not to his face, mind. And not while the wife was around, either. But sometime later, after mature consideration, I sent him a long letter explaining precisely why, on the strength of that one strained evening, I was worried that he was perhaps making a mistake. Moreover, I did it in a rather arch and –as I thought– witty way that I hoped might take the sting out of some of the more barbed comments.
In retrospect, this wasn’t a very clever idea. I’ll spare you the gory details, but to give you an idea of the tone of the thing, I believe the best friend figured as ‘The Ugly Sister’, which I admit was neither very generous, nor politically correct, or even pertinent for that matter. Chum showed my ‘witty’ letter to his wife and I’ve been persona non grata round their place ever since. They are, I am glad to say, still together. So apparently, I was wrong . . . with the best will in the world.
It is as a result of incidents such as these –and they are legion– that I have learned a certain affection for dissimulation. I don’t want to imply that I go round lying through my teeth all the time. I’m not very good at outright lying. But when you’re-my-favourite-girl-in-the-class seems politic, I’m your man. I think I could even rustle up a disingenuous delighted-to-meet-your-new-companion if circumstances demanded.
Consequently, I am always puzzled as to why ‘hypocrisy’ is such a pejorative word. Moral hypocrisy is reprehensible, because there is nothing more galling than do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do, especially since the doing-as-I-do is nearly always a lot more fun than the doing-as-I-say. But so far as I can see, social hypocrisy is what holds us together most of the time. We all spend a good deal of our lives playing parts and, if we didn’t, I reckon we would be at each other’s throats even more regularly than we are already.
Hypocrisy is also common currency in writing. I’m not talking about the hypocritical behaviour of fictional characters that novelists have loved to expose ever since Jane Austen perfected the art, nor am I alluding to some sinister tendency toward dishonest propaganda, but rather the play-acting that most of us pull off one way or another everytime we set pen to paper.
Writers nearly always claim they are out to skewer the truth of something and most of us are, but the aspiration is generally toward a truth we wouldn’t necessarily welcome into our own lives. I, for instance, mock materialism whenever I can, and frequently get really rather irate when confronted with what I consider the excesses of consumerism. Few of my friends or family would describe me as either a materialist or a very dedicated consumer, but I like my things nonetheless, starting with that plastic crocodile that got between me and Bernice Winters. I need my booze, too. And I like eating. Then there’s music and books and books and music and so forth. Yet, at times, I can come over like an Old Testament prophet when I’m denouncing the folly of a world premised on a purchased happiness in which goods are synonymous with Good.
Moreover, when novelists dissect some social ill, a lack of nerve, a want of morality, a commonplace injustice, or any general failure of humankind, it is often with a hauteur few of us would dare in day to day discourse. Digging down into ourselves, we find somebody brighter, wittier, wiser than we really are, and we play that role, albeit at one remove, in the shape of the shadowy but manifestly admirable ‘author’ peeking out from behind the concoctions we present to the public.
Above all, though, there is the deceit implicit in our relationship with our readers, for each and every one of us is endeavoring to pull off the hardest trick of all, persuading all readers at once that this book, this story, this insight, these words are addressed directly to them and to them alone.
Did I ever tell you that you are my favourite reader?
No, really, you are. I’m not telling stories here.
Do you want to see my crocodile?
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace