The truth, or something like it

We’re surrounded by sticky stories – those that we tell again and again, which may have once contained a kernel of truth – or something that felt like a truth – that have expanded and been remoulded to form a folk cannon.

Christchurch, a town on the south coast of England with a median age of 69.8, is home to a fittingly old church: Christchurch Priory. I grew up in Christchurch and, as part of the primary history curriculum in a small Church of England school, we were taught the foundational myth of the church and the town.

Ranulf Flanyard began building the church around 1094. It was planned to loom above the town, then known as Twynham, from a vantage point on St Catherine’s Hill. Except each night the building materials were mysteriously transported a solid two miles down the road to the site of an old Saxon church.

This happened a few times. Each day, the workers would transport the building material back to the site on St Catherine’s Hill, and overnight the materials would be mysteriously returned to the site of the old church. So Flanyard threw up his arms in consternation and decided that it was probably a sign from god or something. So, recognising he was on a hiding to nothing, he decided the new church would be built on the site of the old Saxon church. (Which was also somewhat closer to the harbour, which can’t have been a bad thing for a big build that required lots of heavy materials…)

Construction began, and the labourers set about their task. The new church started to go up with no more than the usual level of complications. All was going smoothly until a beam needed for the roof was found to be too short. (Measure twice, cut once, lads.) Flanyard threw up his hands (again): was nothing straightforward?

The very next morning, the crew rocked up at the site – to find the beam installed, and the miraculously the right size! This was surely another Devine intervention. After all, fitting the beam would have been the work of an expert carpenter and – ohmigerd! – it must have been the handiwork of Jesus!

And as befits the site of such a miracle, the name of the town was changed from boring old Twynham to much-blessed Christchurch.

Each year, a new class of students would be taught the same history of how Christchurch got its name and visit the Priory, where the miraculous beam can still be seen. So the children of Christchurch retold the foundational myth in homework essays, local history projects, guided tours for parents, and apparently now their newsletters.

Foundational myths are everywhere. They tell us something about ourselves – the way we see ourselves, or way we see the world we live in. The good people of Christchurch liked to see themselves as blessed, maybe, or special. The story has an appealing sort of truthiness. Not necessarily truth, exactly, but a kind of emotional truth that is just as potent – if not more so – than fact.

Truthiness, then, is perhaps what makes a story sticky. A resonance that allows the story to evolve, be reshaped, retold, refreshed through repetition to new audiences. It’s a quality that can be found in folklore, Norse myths, religions, Shakespeare’s major works, popular history, and politics.

But reader beware: a storyteller’s aim is truthiness – to create a world and characters that feel real, to sucker us in, make us care and show us something we want to see about ourselves. It’s a powerful alchemy, and one we’re not as immune to as we might like to think.

Backlist

  • Another story we were told at school was about the World War I Christmas Truce. The story of a football match played in no-man’s land resonated with some of the generally disinterested boys in a way that the general horrors of war didn’t. (I distinctly remember watching a dramatic reproduction of a decisive scissor kick in injury time that cinched the match from a group of lads who would, in a couple of years’ time, get expelled for burning down the Geography block.) There’s a truthiness in that story, which is explored in this fascinating article from Simon Jones.

  • Another worthwhile long read – if you can get past the slightly unnecessary theories of evolutionary advantage, which really are just speculation – is this article about how people resist information that goes against their worldview. Truthiness, it seems, is the pushing on an open door.

  • Speaking of truthiness, this, by Adrian Hon, is a really interesting – and important – look at the ways in which conspiracy theories are like alternative reality games.

  • Stories that we tell time and again often have a relationship with the monomyth –or the hero’s journey, as popularised by Joseph Campbell. The story of how Peter Parker came to be Spiderman has been told so many times that each time the film franchise is rebooted there’s a collective outpouring of thoughts and prayers for Uncle Ben. Into the Spiderverse played on this, and this collection of concept art from the film is well worth a crawl.

  • And finally, the less-told story of Elizabeth Woodcock who in 1799 was trapped under a snowdrift near Histon for a week and lived to tell the tale – until, months after her rescue, well-wishers had sent her so much booze that she wound up in an early grave. This story is commemorated by a stone memorial just off the northern stretch of busway near Cambridge.

Fin

Done Scrolling is – like a certain virus – still evolving, so expect it to grow and develop over time. Overall, I hope you find something of interest, even if it’s deeply obscure! I’ll be back next week with more distractions.

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And if there’s anything distracting or diverting you’d like to recommend, let me know.