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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

Harry Styles performing in London on April 11. Photo: Hélène Pambrun
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How Harry Styles’ European tour was transformed into a LGBT-positive safe space

And all thanks to two fans, 50 volunteers and 28,000 pieces of paper.

After 21 dates, 20 cities, 19 suits, 14 countries and one kilt, Harry Styles’s European tour came to a close last night in Dublin. Some of his most dedicated fans attended a handful of dates in a row, organising their own queuing systems, and arranging tributes to the Manchester terror attacks. “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room,” Styles said at every gig, always bringing an LGBT flag on to the stage as he performed. As ever, his shows were a always collaboration between artist and audience to create a safe space for teenage girls and LGBT fans.

On this tour, two fans in particular went above and beyond to create a visually striking, affirmational statement. Ksenia, 17, and Luna, 20, came up with the Rainbow Project, a labour-intensive and involved plan to invite those attending the London dates of the tour to participate in a giant rainbow running around the circumference of the O2 Arena. The project involved distributing 14,000 pieces of differently coloured paper and instructions each night to different seat sections: fans were then invited to put the paper over their phone torches during the song “Sweet Creature” to create a rainbow light effect.

Ksenia and Luna tell me they have been fans of Harry's since his One Direction days: in 2014 and 2012 respectively. “We are really proud of how far he’s come,” Luna explains, “from being afraid of what people thought of him, to confidently pulling off wearing a dress!” The two say they were inspired by Harrys support of the LGBT community: “We just wanted to do something for him.”

Such fan projects aren’t new. As the writer Aamina Khan explains, One Direction fans – who are known for collectively organising to win polls, drive obscure songs to become chart hits, or raise money for charities the band have supported in the past – have been organising fan projects around the rainbow flag since 2014. As the presence of such flags became more and more visbile, Styles in particular started engaging with both the symbol and its message: draping flags around him speaking of love and equality to the crowd. Last year, fans brought hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter signs to Harry Styles concerts.

But Ksenia and Luna’s project seems by far the most complex and challenging so far. “It took us three months to prepare the project,” Luna explains. “We had a group of about 25 volunteers for each show who helped us to hand the colours out. Almost everyone in the arena got a colour, so we made 28,000 pieces in total for the two days.”

Aside from the hours and organisation needed to produce, print, cut out and distribute close to 30,000 small pieces of paper, they both feared that the strict security teams at venues like the O2 wouldn’t take too kindly to their plan. “Obviously you are scared that what you planned doesn't work out,” Luna explains. “But we were pretty optimistic.”

“The venue sadly did take 5,000 pieces away from us on the first night, as we needed permission to do the whole thing – which we didn’t know. The next day, the O2 and its venue manager Rachael reached out to us, and we were happy to have official permission. That night everything worked out perfectly and we’ve never seen something more stunning. It left us speechless.”

“Harry creates wonderful safe spaces each night he steps on stage,” they tell me. “We think we speak for everyone when we say that we’re thankful for that.”

Luna says that the inclusive feeling of Harry Styles concerts is a collaboration between both audience and artist:  “He brings a message, and we as fans chose what we can identify with or look up to. The combination of that creates the feeling at a concert.”

The Harry Styles tour has left Europe, but it’s far from over. As it moves on to Australia, Asia and America, more creative fan projects are undoubtedly on the way.

All photos by Hélène Pambrun.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.