Friday, 9 January 2009



Shakespeare was quite wrong. When that I was and a little tiny boy the rain it did NOT raineth every day. The world was bathed in perpetual sunshine, summer lasted from Easter Egg Time to Christmas Eve and more often than not I was Errol Flynn. With my blue mac, top buttoning fastened round my neck, the garment became either a Bengal Lancer’s pelisse, a cavalier’s cloak or Geronimo’s blanket. In early manhood I was flattered to be likened to Hemingway by Coronation St actorJohnny Briggs but later became  an amalgam of Falstaff and Pickwick.

Enjoyable though these flights  were,  I always knew there was a real world hovering menacingly in the suburb of my fantasies.


Nowadays fantasy is king. We live vicariously in Coronation Street, Albert Square or some unlikely village in Emmerdale. When newspapers write of actors who appear in soaps they use their characters’ names to identify them.


Like some latter day Alice we step through our computer screens into virtual worlds where we can inhabit the bodies of anyone we please. Recently two virtual characters sued in life for divorce


We fight to the death in the person of a doppelganger, play golf, box, fish, climb mountains, even build entire civilisations through electronic games. We amass huge debts by living beyond our means and then are reassured by the Government that we can expunge them by creating more debt. No one says from whence the money we borrow will come.


Real money has vanished. In its place we have pieces of paper which we are told is money. This mock money we can use to buy shares which increase or diminish because the gamblers to whom we entrust our false money circulate rumours or fall into blind panic.


They lend supposed money to people who they k now cannot pay it back and then sell the bad debts to other gamblers who insist they have value.


We fight over the boundaries of “our” country. You cannot see the difference between “our” country and the country “owned” by strangers. Frontiers are abstractions yet we guard them with our real lives. Perhaps even more dangerous, we create fantasy countries. At Versailles, so rightly characterised as the peace that passeth all understanding, we created Iraq out of three tribes, the Sunni, the Shiites and the Kurds, who have been enemies since Mohammed’s day, and sewed the seeds for the disaster which is Israel. As America, Australia and New Zealand showed, the only way you can make a success of a takeover is to slaughter the native population.


Alas, that only works when the natives are limited to throwing spears and bows and arrows. In these days of equal weaponry, the only result is mutual destruction.


Our spiritual lives are governed by myths. Safe in the assurance that an immaculate conception brings, we laugh at the notion that people once believed gods were born from the foreheads of other gods. We demonstrate our difference by conforming.


Predictably the politicians are looking for a way to harness the fantasy principle.


A rock-star reception was accorded to Malcolm Gladwell on his arrival in London at the end of November. Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Blink, filled a West End theatre with eager fans when he turned up to talk about his latest book, “Outliers”, which promised to deflate the idea of individual genius and “tell the story of success”.

Remarkable the haste with which such books are snapped up by politicians in search of inspiration. Before “Outliers”, “Nudge” by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, explains how, with a little discreet encouragement, human behaviour can be ushered in the right direction. When word got out that David Cameron had read it, sales soared.

Historians are the ultimate weavers of fancy. Gwyn Alf Williams, the Welsh Marxist historian, asked pertinently “When was Wales?” and averred that no reputable historian would endorse pre-Tudor histories of his country. The centre piece of Welsh cultural history, the “Ancient” Gorsedd of Bards, is little more than two hundred years old. It was invented by a drug crazed forger and first celebrated on Primrose Hill in London. The bardic stone represents the twelve lost tribes of Israel. My ancestor Owain Glyndwr was a psychopathic, English-educated aristo who murdered countless Welshmen. The 15,000-strong army with which Edward I invaded Wales included 11,000 Welshmen.

Trevor Roper, who authenticated the forged Adolf Hitler diaries, posthumously published a debunking of Scottish history “The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History”.

Scots chroniclers, he says, simply filled in the gaps with heroic inventions of their own, tracing royal Scots lineage back to a Greek prince, who married Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Ossian, the Gaelic bard whose verses were “discovered” in the 18th century, was hailed as “the Celtic Homer”. Finally the work was exposed as an elaborate hoax.

The kilt was invented by a Lancashire industrialist for his Scots employees; while the system of tartan patterns was published in the invented Vestiarium Scoticum by the Sobieski Stuart brothers, born John and Charles Allen in Egham, Surrey.

No Englishman who has worked in either Wales or Scotland would accept the myth of a United Kingdom.

In France they cling to Charlemagne and the legends of the Revolution. Marie Antoinette did not say. “Let them eat cake”. Estonians exalt the myth of Kalevipoeg the Giant, while Albanians recall the 15th-century warrior Skanderbeg, leaping from mountain to mountain on his charger, slaying Ottomans. William Tell, the 14th-century Swiss hero, shot an apple off his son's head, killed his Austrian oppressor and sparked the rebellion that led to the Swiss Confederation. He probably never existed, although 60 per cent of Swiss believe that he did.

In America they have Pocahontas, a president who could not tell a lie and a Wild West image of true grit which is false.

We have Alfred and his cakes, Arthur and his knights, St George (who, if he existed, was probably born in Cappadocia, now part of Turkey). Robin Hood is a hardy English myth, but he may actually be Rabbie Hood, a Scot, his story adapted from that of William Wallace, or possibly Robin MacGilchrist, one of Wallace's chief lieutenants. If tartan was the invention of two likely Surrey lads, Lincoln Green might just owe its origins to an Argyllshire aristocrat.

Everyone in England knows that if ravens quit the Tower of London, the monarchy will crumble: fewer know that the ravens' wings are clipped.

It is human nature to believe what we fervently hope might be true.

“How Stories Live or Die in Viral Culture” is a book by Bill Wasik, who invented the “flash mob” when he used e-mail and text to invite 200 young New Yorkers to converge on a store in the city. His book is the latest search for the holy grail of the net - why certain things propagate themselves and are passed around like a virus to be seen by audiences of millions.

The search for what geeks are calling the “internet meme” (after Richard Dawkins' neologism for a cultural idea that is transmitted like a gene), or how hype whizzes from peer to peer around the decentralised net, is of huge interest to everyone from artists to advertisers.

The BBC has created its own fantasy to justify its expansion beyond the limits which were set for it. The Corporation was financed to provide a public service but uses the greater part of its revenue in pursuit of the fantasy that it must compete with the commercial networks. The funding it gets does not depend on the size of the audience.



I have often thought that Sir John Mandeville could have walked onto a job on the Sun. He pinched most of his stories from other reporters and when he couldn’t steal them he made them up.

But he only stole the best.

He wrote a travel book in 1322 which was still a bestseller three hundred years later. About the author we know little. He claimed to have been an English knight but that is unlikely. It seems he stole names as well as stories. Sir John Mandeville was probably the pen name of a French assassin called Bearded John..

He was very big on dragons.

“And some men say that in the Isle of Lango is yet the daughter of Hippocras in form and likeness of a great dragon. ......she was thus changed by a goddess yclept Diana. And men say she will stay in that form unto the time a knight come that is so hardy that dare kiss her upon the mouth....

“A knight of Rhodes that was hardy and doughty in arms said he would kiss her....

“He went in her cave where she lifted up her head against him. And when the knight saw her he fled away and the dragon bare the knight upon a rock, maugre his head.....

“Also a young man who wist not of the dragon came into the cave and found a chamber. There he saw a damosel that combed her head and looked into a mirror; and she had much treasure about her. She turned her head and asked him what he would?

“He said he would be her paramour.

“She told him to come on the morrow and kiss her on the mouth. And have no dread for I will do thee no harm, albeit thou see me in the likeness of a dragon. This is an enchantment. If thou kiss me thou shalt have all this treasure and be my lord.

“And the man came on the morrow to kiss this damsel. And when he saw her come out of the cave in the shape of a dragon, so hideous and so horrible, he had so great dread that he fled. She followed him. And when she saw that he turned not again, she began to cry, as a thing that had much sorrow.

“And anon the knight died. And sithen hitherward might no knight see her, but that he died anon”


I was always finding girl friends like that.