Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Truth or…?

on May 21, 2012

My book group’s last read was The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall.  It was one which I really enjoyed, mainly because it used an interesting plot and engaging characters to raise really quite thought-provoking questions (which, in my opinion, is what literary/award-winning fiction should be, rather than thematic pieces of writing with no coherent plot or identifiable characters… sorry, but my feelings about this subject are particularly strong, especially since I watched a BBC4 programme last year, presented by Sue Perkins, in which she explored the inexplicable – to her – popularity of genre fiction and was generally very snobbish about it and its plot-driven concepts, and reluctant to draw the conclusion that it’s popular because it’s good and people enjoy reading it).

Without wishing to spoil the plot of The Roundabout Man for future readers (because I really would recommend it), it concerns a man called Quinn Smith whose mother wrote adventure novels for children in the 1950s and 60s.  The books were hugely successful and the family lived in comfort in a large Arts and Crafts house with the children attending private schools.  Quinn’s problem was that the central characters of his mother’s novels were based on, and named after, him and his elder triplet sisters. The popularity of the books was such that the names of Quinn and his sisters were well known and, despite the fact that the stories were imaginary, people believed and expected them to be the characters they had read about in the books.  This expectation has eventually become so much of a burden to the adult Quinn that he “escapes” with a caravan and ends up making a spontaneous decision to park up on a large, wooded motorway roundabout and lives there for some years.

The main question raised in the book, and one which Quinn comes to realise is pertinent to his own life, as well as all those people who thought they knew him, is over how much of our knowledge of others is the truth, and how much is a fiction, and it is by confronting this question that the ideas of the book are resolved (not entirely, which I found a little frustrating, but in a realistic and understandable way).  It started me musing on how true this is, although we don’t think about it much.

If we don’t know someone well, the fictional element of how we perceive them can come from our own imagination, which is something Quinn comes to realise and something I am especially guilty of from time to time.  My enquiring mind will come up with a question to which my imagination will supply a possible answer (or sometimes a dream, which brings its own problems – remember this episode of Friends?  I frequently have similar issues).  If my imagination goes unchallenged I can end up subconsciously believing it – recently I was surprised to see someone I vaguely know driving a car, because I had thought he’d had to give up his licence owing to illness.  A moment later I remembered that I had in fact made it all up! (It’s a long story)

But sometimes the fiction is beyond our control and it’s true that what we know of anyone is only what they choose to reveal to us.  Many times I have heard people talk about how they “really like” (or even “really love”) a celebrity.  When challenged – are they thinking of the part he/she famously played in a TV series? is it in fact his/her music that they enjoy? after all, they don’t know this person – they respond that they have seen the celebrity interviewed, or giving a speech, or appearing in a fly-on-the-wall documentary and therefore they know what they are talking about.  Of course, as soon as we start to think more carefully we know that the character presented in any of those ways can easily be as planned and contrived as the sitcom character or the stage presence.  But the fact is that this is equally the case for our neighbours, colleagues, friends and (sounds corny but actually holds more than a grain of truth) even ourselves.

I’m not saying we all lie to each other, or even that we consciously present ourselves in a particular way, although that happens – I met at least one person at university who had “reinvented” herself, which was fine until she came into contact with one of the other two people in our year who had been at school with her (one of whom made it his particular mission to embarrass her at every opportunity!).  But the way we behave towards one another colours the way in which we’re seen by those around us.  Who hasn’t dressed uncharacteristically smartly for a job interview or a meeting with the bank manager, or spent hours agonising over an outfit for a first date?  How many of us have a “telephone voice”?  (I not only have one of those but frequently change my accent depending on whom I’m talking to!).  The better we know people, and the more time we spend with them in the company of others, the more insight we gain into how they relate to people in different areas of their life and the more complete a picture we’ll create of their personality.

Lastly, as I’ve said, we are fully capable of deceiving ourselves about who we are and what we’re like.  An episode from one of my favourite TV series, Coupling (written by the ever-marvellous Steven Moffat, better known these days for Doctor Who and Sherlock) contains the line: There are three things all men should know and it’s time you did too.  You’ll never be famous, you’re fatter than you think and, most important of all, they don’t keep wearing stockings.  I’ll come back to the stockings in a minute, but how about the other two?  Don’t you think they reflect a lot about our ability to create a fictional version of ourself?  How often have we tried on a potential new garment, only to discover that the picture we had in our head (or the one we saw on the packet/magazine page/internet) didn’t reflect the truth of the matter at all?  As children or teenagers didn’t all we dream of winning the prize, getting the starring role in the school play, becoming the sports captain, being praised for our marvellous contribution (“Nobody’s ever done it so well before!”).   As we get older we appear to grow out of those kind of fantasies, become more realistic, but secretly we want it just as much.  We want to be liked and admired, and we think we’re worth it (and that’s without being told so by cosmetics adverts).

As I wrote this, I wasn’t sure where I was heading – it’s just something that’s struck me and I wanted to discuss it.  So I’ve thought of two conclusions, a serious one and a frivolous one, and I shall share them both with you.

The first is the serious one:  the conclusion I’ve reached is that honesty is important in the way we define ourselves.  If we’re honest with others, we’ll find it easier to be honest with ourselves (especially if other people go on liking us!).  If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll find it easier to be honest with God, who’s the only one who knows what everyone’s really like.  Psalm 139:1-3 says:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; 
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways. 

Before God we don’t like who we are, so we pretend we’re better than that, that we’re the kind of person worth his time and attention, forgetting, of course, that we already have his time and attention in his work to save and change us through Jesus, even though he knows what we’re like.

That’s the serious ending, so feel free to stop reading now if you feel satisfied with that.  Here’s the frivolous conclusion for those that want it.  Back to Coupling – a series which examines relationships, and the misunderstandings that can occur whilst getting to know one another better.  Here’s the clip containing the above line, both to enlighten you about the stockings and to allow Steve (Jack Davenport as a version of Moffat’s own younger self) to express his concern to his friends Jeff and Patrick about what happens after we’ve presented ourselves in a good light at the start of a relationship.

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