My fellow survivors, as we huddle in this underground shelter, sharing a glass of sock strained wee and secretly envying the millions already dead, it seems an opportune moment to ascribe blame to the man most responsible for the recent thermonuclear catastrophe. That man is Stephen Fry.
Mr Fry, I think we can all agree, was a clever man: erudite, witty and a delightful recounter of even the most familiar of anecdotes. Alas, what bitter irony that his wonderful evocation, on his QI show, of the extraordinary preservation of the features of the victims of Pompeii in the moment of their demise was ultimately to be echoed by the atomic torch fixing his death shadow to the walls of the BBC building so many centuries later.
Of course, by then Fry had quit presenting QI, and why wouldn’t he – his work was done.
After more than a decade spent removing pieces from the Jenga tower of our certainties until it tottered, tugging maniacally at the threads that knitted the fluffy jumper of accepted wisdom which had hitherto kept us warm and reassured, he departed like the fleeing farter who is happy to pass on the blame for his flatulent faux pas while keeping his own nose clean.
If it is true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then let there be no doubt that the QI klaxon was the devil’s doorbell.
For so many years, we fed this Trojan Horse of a programme the sugar lumps of our support, believing that it was somehow empowering to know that we knew nothing.
But having our certainties constantly undermined had the opposite effect. Over time we became as woolly-headed as Stephen’s accomplice Alan Davies. No, not in the sense of the hair – I look around and see how the remorseless razor of radiation has brought baldness to us all. Although, I suppose, Davies’ dandelion barnet is an apt metaphor for the way the bright petals of our conviction became but wispy strands to be stripped by the winds of indecision until our heads were empty.
Empty and riddled with doubt. Unable to trust our own judgement. Reluctant to declare anything a “fact” we would be prepared to stand over. Helpless in the face of those evil forces who would exploit our uncertainty and replace it with new certainties of their own.
It began with the repetition of slogans, inevitably mocked by late night talk show hosts for their inanity, which only cemented those slogans in our minds. This was so easy it quickly moved to blatant lies. One might wonder how, in a world where everything could be looked up instantly, such lies were not slapped down immediately. But these were people who didn’t rely on our being too lazy to check facts – they lied to us about things as we were looking at them.
“Mr Trump” would never do such a thing”, we were told as we watched film of him doing it.
Meanwhile, every report which failed to meet with their approval was termed “fake”. Even sacred numbers – 60 was “doing well in the polls”, while 35 was the false figure of fake media.
No doubt someone was preparing to tell the press that we had always been at war with Eastasia even as the missiles were leaving their silos.
The next thing we knew the entire Premier League programme was postponed due to all of the pitches and their surrounding stadiums and cities and the majority of those with tickets being reduced to ashes…
Before this new thing of trampling on the truth until you blundered into war, they used to say the first casualty of war was truth.
The Second World War was fought with many weapons from the brute force of bombing to the code breaking of clever clogs in country houses. In the Oscar winning film The Counterfeiters the Nazis employed prisoners with suitable talent to forge counterfeit sterling and dollars in an attempt to destabilise their enemies’ economies. Despite themselves, some of the forgers couldn’t help taking pride in the quality of their work. At the same time, over on the American side, there was Operation Quicksilver, the subject of the PBS documentary “The Ghost Army”, the barely believable story of the “23rd headquarters special troops”, whose job was to draw fire away from other tactically important troops using inflatable tanks and sound effects recordings while employing the same skills to camouflage real weapons factories. Yes, the guys whose tanks were, in fact, tank-shaped balloons were being asked to “draw fire” – and they did.
On the occasion of North Korea’s 100th anniversary celebration the country’s mighty arsenal was paraded for the cameras of the world. Some of their hardware , if not painted balloons, looked suspiciously inoperable. Happier times!
One of the Ghost Army survivors bore a strong resemblance to Kurt Vonnegut whose book Mother Night tells the story of Howard Campbell, who acted as an American agent during the war while broadcasting radio propaganda for the Nazis. His need for secrecy demands he keep his true purpose secret even from his wife. At the end of the war, as his father-in-law is about to flee Berlin, he tells Campbell that it was his radio broadcasts that kept him on message and without them he would have believed Hitler and the others were quite mad. Left to hang out to dry, Campbell keeps a low profile in New York. Eventually he makes a good friend and finally unburdens himself of his story. But it transpires that this new friend, George Kraft, is a Secret Soviet agent who introduces Campbell to a group of white supremacists for whom he is an inspirational figure for all of the things he said which are the opposite of what he believes. The group’s leader produces a woman claiming to be Campbell’s wife Helga, but in keeping with the rest of the story, she is not.
Vonnegut says the lesson of his story is to be careful who you pretend to be, which would have advice well heeded for architect, marine biologist and eager fiancé George Constanza, on the popular pre-Event show Seinfeld.
People used to self-mythologise all the time. Bruce Lee was a formidable martial artist, but he liked to feed stories which exaggerated his brilliance – it was good for business.
You may remember the reality TV show Pawn Stars. It was about a man called Rick Harrison, who owned a shop which bought and sold a wide variety of items. It was a bit like the Antiques Roadshow in the way the viewer got to hear the story behind these items with an anticipation about their value with an added bit of haggling between vendor and buyer.
It’s clear Rick’s job was as much about looking into the eyes of the seller as It was assessing the bona fides of the item. He’d had a lifetime of experience, but he had two sons working for him who were much less experienced.
In one episode, the less formidable son had just spent a lot of money buying a book he believed was a valuable signed first edition. The son was despatched to an expert who would tell him how much the book was worth. The suspense of the show rested on whether the lad had blown a wad on his hunch or whether he would be proved wise in his purchase. The expert would judge whether the book was a true first edition and give an estimate as to its value. The value of something was all down to indicators of authenticity and the collector’s faith in the same. Everything rested on the subjective view of the expert that those indicators were authentic.
From the Pawn Stars’ point of view, if they paid €10,000 for “Jimi Hendrix’s guitar” and sold it for €20,000 the question of whether it was ever really Hendrix’s guitar was
But, for the collector, his or her faith in an item’s authenticity might be compared to Percy in Blackadder purchasing a bone from Jesus’ finger for thirty one pieces of silver…
only to hear Baldrick point out that “those usually come in boxes of ten”. We might think Percy a fool but the German newspaper Stern handed over millions for the Hitler Diaries.
The American comedian Steven Wright had a joke about coming home to find that someone had taken all the stuff from his apartment and replaced it with identical stuff.
What’s interesting about this idea is, if it did happen, you would notice the difference (it would be impossible to replace everything exactly – your intimate knowledge of the tiniest imperfection would alert you) but you could never persuade anyone else it had happened.
When someone wakes up one day convinced that they have been abducted by aliens, their whole world has been turned upside down and they have the problem of being certain of something they know no-one will believe. For them the experience is authentic and life changing. But their new reality must remain their own, unless they want the world to consider them mad.
In the famous case of Betty and Barney Hill, discrepancies in their accounts, seemed like a hole in their story but out of two people one will be much more reluctant to admit to what they know others don’t want to hear.
For a while there, I thought I had been abducted by aliens, but then I realised I was confusing reality with the tv show “People Of Earth”.