Ian McMillan: Caught in the fact

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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Take the facts and print the legend. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Fact is fiction with an instruction manual. I made that last one up but I think it has a certain something, because I’ve been thinking, like the rest of the world in these uncertain times, about facts and their relationship with storytelling.

I’m a writer so my relationship with facts is fluid and complex; I like them, of course, because they’re useful in pub quizzes and working out the shortest route between A and B. Sometimes, though, when you’re telling a tale or launching into an anecdote, they’re just not enough. People talk about “embroidering the facts” and that’s just what I like to do; I like to make them look pretty, to make them more narratively cohesive, to make them funnier and more dramatic.

So, here are the facts. I was doing a show in a small town in South Yorkshire and I was being met at a station and driven to the gig. The man who met me said he knew exactly where the event was happening and that he would take me straight there. If ever a man was comfortable with facts, it was him. As we entered the small town we saw the organiser of the event walking down the street and we both took that as a sign that we were heading towards the right location. I saw, but he didn’t, the organiser turn left down an alley.

The show was happening in a church and we approached a huge one with a steeple. At the back of my mind, some alternative facts niggled at me: I wasn’t speaking at this church. “Here we are!” my driver said. “It looks a bit dark,” I said, trying to let him down gently. “The windows are very thick,” he said, unconvincingly. He rang the organiser and she directed him to the correct venue.

In that last sentence is the evidence of why facts fail. It was true that he rang the organiser and she directed him to the correct venue but that is so very dull when you’ve got a sparkling column to write!

So in my embroidered, enhanced story the man rang the organiser and she ran down the street to meet us; he drove away and turned a corner and so we missed her. She pounded on the door of the church, thinking we were inside fumbling for light switches by a font. Me and the driver drove to another church which was also the wrong one. We tried to ring the organiser again but she had dropped her phone in the churchyard and couldn’t find it because she’d put the ringtone to 
silent. In desperation, the driver and I drove to a place that used to be a chapel but it was now a private house called the Old Chapel.

The facts tell me that we drove to the right church straight away and I did the show, but I prefer the story; it’s much more entertaining. Facts, eh? Who needs them?

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