Sunday, 16 September 2012

History is Other People

I was seventeen years away from being born when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. One of the most significant moments in human history – for a great many reasons – and I was not around to be one of the five hundred million people who watched the events unfold on their fuzzy black and white TVs. I was brought into the world having missed out on something truly (in the full sense of the world) incredible. Setting foot on another planet – even a satellite rock – had been a seemingly unachievable dream of the great scientific minds ever since such planets were identified as such. Hanging there like glowing fruits, positioned just out of reach of Tantalus.

I missed out on the moment when Tantalus finally broke his chains and took a deep bite into that fruit. A defiance of supposed physical boundaries.

And yet, I don’t think I ever gave enough thought to the event to feel resentful at that missing out. To feel jealous of the many who had witnessed it roughly at the same moment it occurred.

By the time I was of an age to properly be aware of such momentous happenings, they’d already slipped into the territory of, if not parody, then ubiquity and over-saturation. There were references to the moon landings in The Simpsons, other cartoons, countless films. For every sci-fi story written or filmed beforehand that treated the possibility of such an act with reverence, and even fear, many that came afterwards seemed almost laconic in their response. It became either very quickly passé, or very quickly suspicious. There were drama-mongering documentaries turning up more and more often in the schedules, harping on and on about how the moon landings were fake, cobbled together on some Hollywood backlot. Nothing other than the most-watched B-movie of all time.

Neil Armstrong’s achievements seemed, in more ways than one, to have been fictional. For a ten-year-old kid, it could be tough to say for certain whether he was a real man, or just an actor playing an astronaut.


I wasn’t much older than that when Lance Armstrong first won the Tour De France. I didn’t really watch any of that victory, besides the clips of him in action and standing on the podium in the yellow jersey, but I listened to enough of what was going on around me to know that what he’d achieved was kind of a big deal.

The older I got and the more I heard, the more outlandish his continuing success appeared. Here was a man who had survived what sounded like the worst kind of cancer a guy could get, and after all of that, begun to win what sounded like the single toughest event a person could put themselves through. I still didn’t watch much of the Tour whenever it was on TV – I was, at that time, much more into football and motorsports – but I knew enough about it to feel amazed by the magnitude of what Lance Armstrong was doing.

And then I started to hear different things. Worse things. Allegations not that he was on drugs, but that he must be on drugs. Because how else could he do that? Nobody else had managed it, or anything quite like it – except for, perhaps, the mythic and preternatural Belgian Eddy Merckx – and so it didn’t make sense that this American man could. Or, at least, that he could do it cleanly.

There were times when those yellow jersey pictures seemed as fake as some believed the moon landings to be.

Could it be – I must have wondered on more than a few occasions, prolific reader of spy novels and budding conspiracy theorist that I was – that both of these great American heroes were frauds?


I was disheartened when I heard that Orson Welles had been amongst the more famous doubters of Shakespeare’s authorship. Yes, that’s the right word. Disheartened.

At the time I heard that, I must only have been properly aware of his work in The Third Man (hadn’t even seen CitizenKane!), and yet that was enough, along with stories I had heard about his struggles with the Hollywood machine, about his plans for various projects that never quite got up and running (of which, his plan to adapt Heart of Darkness using a cutting technique that would allow the film to appear as though composed of seamless footage, is still perhaps the one that holds the most if only… appeal), to convince me of his supreme worth as an artist. I was very much intrigued and eager to see as much of his output as possible.

Knowing that these projects included several Shakespeare adaptations, for which he seemed to have quite a fervour, I was perplexed that he should be so dismissive of the idea that one man – or, more specifically, one man called William Shakespeare – could have been behind all the plays and poetry attributed to him.

Of course, now I’m of a less adolescent and easily-aggravated mind, I can safely accept that questioning the absolute facts of an issue does not necessarily imply disrespect for the players involved. Being aware of Welles’ doubts on the issue has not caused me to doubt him or his art, and I have been thrilled and challenged in equal measure by pretty much all examples of such that I’ve seen. Indeed, I can also accept that for someone so involved with the performance (and editing) of Shakespeare’s works to ask no questions at all would be foolhardy. For anyone who comes across them, perhaps.

But it is the manner in which such questions are asked which is of critical importance, along with the motivation for their asking. If there is a genuine reason to doubt, or if questions have been asked before and remain unsatisfactorily answered, then, by all means, it is fair game to ask those questions again. If the issues arouse intense curiosity, then it is certainly better to try and sate that curiosity than to carry around forever that irritating itch of unfulfilled wondering.

Yet, if the questions are being asked in a way that suggests a negative outcome is being sought after, in a way which suggests that all sides of the issue in question will not be given a fair hearing, and that defence of the currently accepted state of affairs is likely to be futile, then there is, I think, a problem. When the questions are asked by those who simply, even vehemently in some cases, do not want to believe.    

Indeed, what has irked me most about all the speculation regarding the authorship of Shakespeare’s works is, I think, the often unremarked-upon significance of many of the other possible candidates being, with the notable exception of the Marlowe theory, noblemen. To me, it sometimes seems to speak of a subtle but nonetheless unpleasant feeling in certain circles that such a low-born man as Shakespeare could be responsible for such great (in many cases) and incisive art. That, lacking in noble birth, or the facilities to experience Italian high-culture first-hand, he would have been somehow unable to fathom and note down those insights.

For that reason, I have long taken umbrage at any mention of the debate – taking particular care, most recently, to avoid Roland Emmerich’s film, Anonymous. As a result, however, I’m none-too-familiar with most of the evidence that has been presented on behalf of several parties (but have read Doctor Faustus well enough to be pretty sure it didn’t come from the same hand), and therefore am unqualified to make a definitive comment on the issue, one way or another. I cannot stay mad at Orson Welles, because I cannot say for certain that he was wrong.


It is worth noting, though, that he could never say for certain that he was right. And here is where all notions of any absolute historical truth in such matters get fuzzy.

You start wading into the morass of clinical fact versus personal, and public, perception.

I’ve heard, and read in articles, of a few people saying that the only person who can tell for certain whether Lance Armstrong took illegal drugs to improve his performances is Lance Armstrong. I guess, in some ways, the same could have been said about Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. And about William Shakespeare and all those plays.

Of course, whilst Neil Armstrong denied all claims of fakery – and, most likely, passed away being absolutely sure of where he’d left that footprint – and Lance Armstrong has always denied the accusations he’s been lobbied with, there have been, and always will remain, those who doubt their statements. Who will seek to press and press Lance Armstrong until he breaks and gives them the answer they want to hear.  

If they do succeed in getting that answer – whether it is actually true or not – then it is that answer which will shape how that particular Armstrong is remembered. Because ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, the truth will be decided and upheld by the majority.

As things stand, around five hundred million people saw Neil Armstrong step out upon the moon, and many more have seen that footage since; several million have witnessed Lance Armstrong racing to victory in seven consecutive Tours de France, and heard news (with a few of them actually seeing evidence) of him passing a large number of drug tests, both scheduled and unscheduled; countless schoolchildren, worldwide, have been subjected to the study of such plays as Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew, and been given no real cause to doubt that they were written by anyone other than the man who’s name appears on the spine of all their annotated editions. That isn’t the truth according to everyone, but it is the truth according to most.

If there is, in the future, some way of authenticating all of that beyond a shadow of a doubt, of proving those truths completely, then that will be a brilliant thing. It will, arguably, be more significant to humanity than even the idea of a man, any man, walking on the moon. This is because it will mean that billions of people have not been deceived by a small minority who couldn’t quite own up to not doing the things those billions believe they did.

And it is this kind of uncertainty – the possibility that such great achievements may not actually have been achieved, at least not in the way it was first claimed – that make clear why it is important for people to be as honest as they can be at any given moment, in both action and thought. Because what a given person’s contemporaries think they’ve done will define the way that they’re remembered.

Sure, honesty may, in some cases, leave a person looking far less successful, and far less important, than they’d perhaps hoped to be. Which explains, without exactly justifying, the impulse to exaggerate or just plain invent one’s achievements (and to cover over one's failings and misdemeanors). But maybe it’s better to be remembered for being – as close as other people can approximate it, anyway – the way you were, and not to have your legacy left resting on a lie.

After all, there is the notion that one’s only true hope for life beyond death, for immortality – of the kind Neil Armstrong will enjoy – comes from the memories one leaves behind in the living (and/or, these days, on the Internet, for the living to peruse at their leisure). If those memories are all a crock of shit, then a given person isn’t really being immortalized, so much as they’re being falsely mythologized. They’re being forgotten, and supplanted by something that never existed but which will, nonetheless, outlast their actual selves.  

This will happen anyway, to a point. No one person will recall a given event the exact same way that someone else does, and so no one person will perhaps ever be recalled as being quite the way they might have felt they were themselves. And, of course, there are those who choose to dedicate most of their time to fiction, to fakeries, even, and to obfuscating some of their true self in the name of generating ‘larger than life’ personas – artists and showmen, for instance, amongst whose number could be counted Orson Welles. But there is a difference between acknowledging one’s self-mythologizing in and as ‘art’, and between pretending at all times to be something one isn’t, without such acknowledgment. There is a difference also between the small, arguably unavoidable inaccuracies that might come about as a result of the quirks of individual memory, and the vast fabrications propagated for a person’s own (posthumous) betterment, which will, ironically, cancel out any real knowledge of who they were and what they actually achieved.

Differences that suggest the following conclusions:

If you want to be a film-maker, or a playwright, or a novelist, always be clear exactly when you are indulging in fiction, in art. And be clear as to what you have actually made/filmed/written yourself and what you haven’t.

If you want to be an astronaut, always be open about whereabouts and on which space station/satellite/planet you’ve landed. And be sure you’ve got a shedload* of reliable witnesses who can testify to this.

If you want to be a professional cyclist, make sure you’ll be able to win races without the need to take supplements/undergo treatments which breach established rules, and which you’ll have to deny later. 

Or, simply: If you want to leave a better legacy, don’t bullshit, just be better at whatever it is you want to do.

Because, even if you don’t quite manage it, then at least it’ll be easier for the ten-year-old kids of the future to know what, and who, to believe.

*Preferably a rather large shed. More of a warehouse, really. But a common or garden shed will do, in a pinch.

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