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Francis Spufford dances rings around the buzzwords of “post-truth” and “fake news”

In True Stories & Other Essays, pop culture references sit alongside more conventionally intellectual vocabulary.

Nestled in the middle of True Stories, a collection of Francis Spufford’s essays from the past 25 years, is a short definition of faith. Under the title “Who is God? An Answer for Children”, there are a few hundred words of uncomplicated prose that evoke the base facts of religious belief, but also the sensation it arouses in those who have it. The language is both utilitarian (“you can’t prove He exists”) and quietly gorgeous (“the sun glitters like a diamond in a dark blue sky”).

Thinking about God, Spufford concludes, means that you “discover that the world is much bigger than you knew it was, and that maybe, just maybe, you can be bigger than you thought you were, too.”

This short piece is Spufford’s entire output in miniature. Throughout his career, which has so far spanned journalism, five non-fiction books and last year’s bestselling novel Golden Hill, he has patrolled the border between fact and fiction, seeking out wonder in strange places and attempting to express it in his writing. His recurring subjects have been as varied as Antarctica, Soviet science and atheism – an unusual diversity of focus that perhaps explains why widespread recognition had largely eluded him until Golden Hill. Even that novel, a pitch-perfect 18th-century pastiche, which won a Costa award, is an unlikely crowdpleaser.

In the titular essay of True Stories Spufford outlines and interrogates his approach to blending fact with fiction. Facts want to “roam free and have non-literal adventures” he argues. As long as the writer exports “the wisp of truthfulness” from reality into imagination, the latter should be free to “noodle out into wild paisley filigree, and still dot each nested curl of fancy with rigour, with puritan conviction”.

Pitched by the publisher as a comment on the contemporary afflictions of “post-truth” and “fake news”, Spufford’s analysis dances rings around the buzzwords without ever needing to spend time debunking them. Instead, like that old journalistic maxim, he chooses to show, not tell. A misattributed Coleridge quotation, which at the outset seems to encapsulate his argument so perfectly, is unmasked as fraudulent before we are whisked on to consider what Middlemarch and the gospels can teach us about narrative. His manifesto, finally revealed, is one of imperfect toil – to “rather build in gopherwood and potato peelings and broken circuit boards and bicycle spokes than in pre-cast concrete”. Truths can be told “straight and slant” he concludes. Not everything that is true is entirely factual.

The 37 pieces collected here are organised into sections based on Spufford’s long-term interests. “Cold” contains his essays on polar exploration and the metaphorical potential of ice; “Red” has Siberian travel writing and reflections on the rise of the global market; and “Sacred” treads ground similar to that of Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, his 2012 riposte to the New Atheists. There is a toughness to the writing here that is absent elsewhere. For example: “Puritans” is quietly devastating on the theological ignorance found in the work of Richard Dawkins and others.

Even though the subject of faith is so personal, Spufford mostly succeeds in these essays in deflecting the focus away from himself (although occasional details slip out, such as the fact that his wife Jessica is ordained and works as a canon at Ely cathedral). In other work, such as his “inward autobiography” The Child That Books Built, he uses a different mode entirely, revealing the painful truth that he used to read obsessively as a child to “evade guilt and avoid consequences” – a habit that began as his baby sister Bridget struggled with a rare and terminal genetic illness.

Any tendency towards leaden polemic in the essays is utterly eradicated by the lightness of Spufford’s language. At one point, he commends Matthew Henson’s 1912 exploration memoir Negro Explorer for its “high flights secured by humour” – an approach very close to Spufford’s own. Hence his description of the fractious relations between famous polar adventurers: “even Oates, up whose nose Scott had got so far that practically only his feet projected”.

Pop culture references sit alongside his more conventionally intellectual vocabulary – Grouty from Porridge and Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman both make appearances. And in his obituary for Iain Banks, Spufford makes a compelling case that Banks’s science fiction, with its inclinations towards the tropes of pulp fiction, far surpassed his literary efforts.

In “Borealism”, Spufford recounts the tale of Henson’s part-Inuit son, latterly revered as a bastion of multiculturalism – a part-African-American inhabitant of the frozen north: “It is a wonderful story. Why so wonderful, though?” His instinct is both to convey the world’s marvels but also to interrogate why they inspire these feelings in us. What does it say about us that we respond with amazement to the story of a mixed-race man born in Greenland? Lingering ideas of Inuit tribes as a form of “human archeology”, or a “pure” race from an earlier age, lead to assumptions that such modern interactions as interracial relationships must be rare and remarkable.

Spufford has a knack for blending fact with fiction, to be sure, but also for threading through his stories a sense of his own uncertainties. Here’s the story, his writing seems to say. Make what you will of it. 

True Stories & Other Essays
Francis Spufford
Yale University Press, 336pp, £20

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia