Pullman: We believe different things in different ways and for different reasons. Photo: Getty
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Imaginary friends: Philip Pullman on fairy tales

We must not deprive our children of fairy tales – learning that there are different ways of believing is one of the most important lessons of all.

Richard Dawkins’s new book, The Magic of Reality, is a tour de force in which he tells a number of myths (about, for instance, the creation of the earth, or rainbows, or where animals came from) and then gives a scientific account of the phenomenon in question, showing how thrilling knowledge and scientific inquiry can be and what a profound sense of wonder they can give us. It’s a book that I shall certainly give to my grandchildren in a year or two. I have never seen a better introduction to science for young readers.

But it reminded me of Dawkins’s misgivings, expressed in a TV news interview two or three years ago, about such things as fairy tales in which frogs turn into princes. He said he would like to know of any evidence about the results of telling children stories like that: did it have a pernicious effect? In particular, he worried that it might lead to an anti-scientific cast of mind, in which people were prepared to believe that things could change into other things. And because I have been working on the tales of the Brothers Grimm recently, the matter of fairy tales and the way we read them has been much on my mind. So, what evidence might there be to settle this question?

We believe different things in different ways and for different reasons. There’s the rock-hard certainty of personal experience (“I put my finger in the fire and it hurt”), which is probably the earliest kind we learn. Then there’s the logically convincing, which we probably come to through the maths we learn at school, in the context of Pythagoras’s theorem or something similar, and which, if we first encounter it at the right moment, bursts on our minds like sunrise, with the whole universe playing a great chord of C major.

However, there are other ways of believing that things are true, such as the testimony of trusted friends (“I know him and he’s not a liar”), the plausibility of likelihood based on experience (“It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to happen”), the blind conviction of the religious zealot (“It must be true, because God says so and His holy book doesn’t lie”), the placid assent of those who like a quiet life (“If you say so, dear”), and so on. Some of these carry within them the possibility of quiet scepticism (“I know him and he’s not a liar but he might be mistaken”).

There’s not just one way of believing in things but a whole spectrum. We don’t demand or require scientific proof of everything we believe, not only because it would be impossible to provide but because, in a lot of cases, it isn’t necessary or appropriate.

How could we examine children’s experience of fairy tales? Are there any models for examining children’s experience of story in a reasonably objective way? As it happens, there are. A very interesting study was carried out some years ago by a team led by Gordon Wells and his colleagues at Bristol University and was described in a book called The Meaning Makers: Children Learning Language and Using Language to Learn (1986).

Wells and his team wanted to find out how children’s language was influenced by what they heard around them. They selected a large number of families with children who were two or three years old, whom they followed right up to the end of their primary education, giving the children unobtrusive, lightweight radio microphones, to be worn under their clothes, which could pick up not only what the children said but also what was being said by parents or others nearby. The microphones were switched on at random intervals for 90 seconds at a time, the results were recorded and transcribed and then an enormous amount of analysis was done on the results.

In brief, they discovered that the more included children were in the conversation and chatter going on around them, the quicker and more fully they picked up every kind of language skill. One interesting discovery was that the most enriching experience of all was the open-ended exploratory talk that arises from the reading of stories. In Language and Learning: an Interactional Perspective (1985), Wells and his colleague John Nicholls write: “Several investigators have noted how much more complex, semantically and syntactically, is the language that occurs in this context . . . Furthermore, the frequency with which children are read to has been found to be a powerful predictor of later success at school.”

So, it’s not impossible to set up experiments to test how children acquire various forms of understanding and to learn interesting things from them. But to go back to Dawkins and his question, how on earth would we set up an experiment to test the effect of fairy tales?

It would have to go on much longer than the Bristol study: it would have to last as long as childhood itself. And it would have to differ from that study in an important way, because it would need a control group. Whereas the scholars at Bristol were concerned with finding out what happens in the natural course of a child’s life, this study would depend on having some children who were allowed fairy tales, fantasy and so on, and another group that wasn’t.

To make it absolutely beyond question, it would have to be policed pretty rigorously. No Harry Potter under the bedclothes. No nursery rhymes either, which are full of impossible things such as cows jumping over the moon. And we would follow the children all the way through their schooling, right up to leaving age, to see whether the ones who were kept away from magic and spells were thereby advantaged in their understanding of science.

Of course, we wouldn’t do it. It would amount to child abuse. To make sure that our subjects never encountered fairy tales of any kind, we would have to keep them in a sort of prison camp. Dawkins knows this; he wouldn’t ask for the unreasonable, or the impossible, or the cruel. When he says that he would like to see some evidence, I assume that he is prepared to be a little generous in his view of what evidence there could be. We don’t demand scientific proof of everything we need to know about, not only because it would be impossible to provide but because, in a lot of cases, it isn’t necessary or appropriate.

Matters of trust

The only way we can know what is going on in the mind of someone who reads a story is to believe them when they tell us about it and compare it with our own experience of reading and see what we have in common. When it comes to the matter that Dawkins is concerned about, namely the question of children’s belief in fairy tales and magic and spells, all we have to go by is belief and trust. It’s that sort of evidence, and that’s the only sort we’ve got – but then, we get by pretty well with that in most of our dealings with other people.

So, do children believe what they read in stories, or don’t they? And if they do, in what way do they believe it? Well, this is what I think about it. I think that childhood reading is more like play than like anything else. Like pretending. When I was a boy of eight or nine, in Australia, we pretended to be figures from comics or films and we acted out stories based on the adventures we’d seen. Davy Crockett was very big at that time; every little boy in the western world had a Davy Crockett hat. I knew I wasn’t really Davy Crockett but, at the same time, I liked imitating things that I’d seen Davy Crockett do on the cinema screen – say, at the Siege of the Alamo.

We fought with passion, and when we died we did so with heroic extravagance. My body was doing all that an eight-year-old body could do to run out from behind a wall, fire a musket, clutch my chest, stagger, crumple to the ground, slowly drag a revolver from a holster with a trembling hand and kill six Mexicans as I breathed my last.

Those were the things my body was doing. What was my mind doing? I think it was feeling a little scrap – a tiny, fluttering, tattered, cheaply printed, torn-off scrap – of heroism. I felt what it was like to be brave and to die facing overwhelming odds. That intensity of feeling is what both fuels and rewards childhood play and reading alike. When we children play at being characters we admire doing things we value, we discover in doing so areas and depths of feeling it would be hard to reach otherwise. Exhilaration, heroism, despair, resolution, triumph, noble renunciation, sacrifice: in acting these out, we experience them in miniature or, as it were, in safety.

Yet at no time during the endless hours of play I spent as a child did I believe that I was anyone other than myself. Sometimes I was me and sometimes I was me pretending to be Davy Crockett. But now that I think about it carefully, I realise that it was a little more complicated than that. When I was playing with my brother and my friends, I was almost entirely Crockett, or Batman, or Dick Tracy, or whoever it was (and I remember games when there were about six different Batmans racing through the neighbourhood gardens). It was when I played alone that I found it possible to be myself, but a different myself, a myself who was Davy Crockett’s close and valued friend, who sat with him beside a campfire in the wilderness or hunted bears in the trackless forests of suburban Adelaide. Sometimes I rescued him from danger and sometimes he rescued me, but we were both pretty laconic about it. In some ways, I was more myself at those times than at any other, a stronger and more certain myself, wittier, more clearly defined, a myself of accomplishment and renown, someone Davy Crockett could rely on in a tight spot.

What’s more, he seemed to value me more than my friends and family did. He saw the qualities in me that their duller eyes failed to perceive. Davy Crockett wasn’t alone in this superior perception; I remember that King Arthur had a high opinion of me, and so did Superman.

Now I think that those experiences were an important part of my moral education as well as the development of my imagination. By acting out stories of heroism and sacrifice and (to use a fine phrase that has become a cliché) grace under pressure, I was building patterns of behaviour and expectation into my moral understanding. I might fall short if ever I were really called on but at least I’d know what was the right thing to do.

And that sort of play, the solitary play, perhaps, even more than the communal play, seems to me very similar to what we do when we read – at least when we read for no other purpose than our enjoyment and especially when we read as children. I’m conscious that the way I read as an adult is a little different, because there’s a part of my reading mind now that looks with critical attention at the way the story is told as well as at the events it relates.

What I thought mostly when I was a child was, “I want to be in this story with them.” It was like the sort of game where I was by myself with Davy Crockett in the wilderness, because in a story I was able to be both myself here and myself there.

I didn’t want to stop being myself; I didn’t want to be them; I wanted to put myself into the story and enjoy things happening to me. And in the sort of private, secret, inviolable space that opened out miraculously between the printed page and my young mind, that sort of thing happened all the time.

I remember it happening especially powerfully with the Moomins. Little creatures who looked like miniature hippopotamuses and lived on an island in the Baltic Sea? Absurd. What I felt for the Moomin family and all their friends, however, was nothing less than love. In fact, I loved them so much that I would never have said to my friends, “Let’s pretend we’re Moomins.” That would have been inconceivable. I would have had to make public something I felt private and secret about, something I could hardly voice even to myself, something if, were it ever discovered, I would have felt embarrassed by; and the shame of discovery, I’m sure, would have been followed quickly by the even greater and longer-lasting shame of betrayal. To save face, I’d have felt obliged to mock and scoff at those dear friends of mine, and at any kid who was so stupid and babyish as to like stories about them.

But when I was alone, with a Moomin book open in front of me and that great, secret space opening up between my mind and the pages, I could revel in their company and sail off in their floating theatre or travel to the mountains to see the great comet or rescue the Snork Maiden from the Groke and no one could possibly have told, from looking at me, what my mind was doing.

Here comes the test: did I believe that the Moomins were real? No, of course I didn’t. I knew that they were made up. I was pretending they were real in order to enjoy being with them in imagination. I wasn’t in the slightest danger of confusing them with real life. The delight of being with the Moomins was a complex kind of delight, made up partly of the sweetness of their characters, partly of the delicate, simple precision of the drawings, partly of the endless inventiveness of Tove Jansson, their creator, partly from the fascination I felt with the northern landscape in which they lived: a whole bundle of things, none of which depended on their being true or real.

Nor did I believe for a second that elephants’ trunks were long because one of their ancestors had played a desperate tug of war with a crocodile, as Rudyard Kipling told me in the Just So Stories. If someone had asked me, in a serious kind of way, why I thought elephants had long trunks, I’d have scratched my head and said, “I dunno.” I knew, even when I was very young, that “Because the crocodile got hold of the elephant’s child’s nose and pulled and pulled” was the wrong sort of answer.

I would have been just as fascinated, in a different kind of way, to hear the real answer; but that wouldn’t have diminished my pleasure in the story, including the delight that I felt in murmuring the sounds of the words: the “ ’satiable curtiosity” of the elephant’s child, the “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees”. I knew these story things, these play things, weren’t real, but that didn’t matter, because I didn’t want them to be real, I wanted them to be funny. Or delightful. Or exciting. Or moving. And they could be all those things and real as well, as some things were, or all those things and imaginary and I could tell the difference, and it didn’t matter.

Life cycle of a frog

I agree that it would be a different question entirely if parents actually brought their children up to believe that frogs could change into princes. And some parents do bring their children up to believe that things can change into other things – bread into flesh and wine into blood, to be specific, and that they’ll go to hell if they don’t believe it. Some parents also bring their children up to believe that the world was created 6,000 years ago and that scientists are wrong when they tell us about evolution and shouldn’t be allowed to teach it in schools. I fully agree with Dawkins when he says that this is pernicious and damaging.

Yet there’s a world of difference between that sort of thing and offering a child a fairy tale. No one says, “You must believe that the frog changed into a prince, because it’s true and only wicked people don’t believe it.” Children really do learn quite early on that there are different ways of believing in different kinds of story.

And when it comes to evidence, I think there’s nothing for it: we just have to trust what people tell us and check it against our own experience. If what they say is that stories of every kind, from the most realistic to the most fanciful, have nourished their imagination and helped shape their moral understanding, then we have to accept the truth of that. My guess is that the kind of stories children are offered has far less effect on their development than whether they are given stories at all; and that children whose parents take the trouble to sit and read with them – and talk about the stories, not in a lecturing sort of way but genuinely conversing, in the way that Wells describes –will grow up to be much more fluent and confident not only with language but with pretty well any kind of intellectual activity, including science. And children who are deprived of this contact, this interaction, the world of stories, are not likely to flourish at all. What sort of evidence that is, I don’t know, but I believe it.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Richard Dawkins guest edit

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.