I cannot think of a film trailer that has so upset me before.
There on the computer screen was Kenneth Branagh, as William Shakespeare in his new film All is True. This is what he said.
“If you are honest with yourself, whatever you write, all is true.”
This sounds very cosy, but – apologies for bringing the bad news – it is wrong.
Of course, in the film it will have a context of which, not having seen it yet, I am unaware. Also, it may not reflect what Ben Elton (who wrote the script) himself believes to be true, as opposed to what he thinks, in the context, William Shakespeare might have said.
But taken on its own, I cannot think of any statement that is more completely wrong.
As Mr Branagh spoke the words, I thought of a famous 20th century author, who sold 12 million copies of a single title and who is back in the bestseller lists again, now he is out of copyright.
Was Adolf Hitler somehow dishonest with himself when he wrote Mein Kampf? Or is what he wrote in any sense at all, even the slightest bit true?
Hateful as Mein Kampf is, it is entirely sincere. That is the most hateful thing about it. Hitler believed what he wrote. Millions of others believed it too. They believed it because it chimed in with the meta-narrative of being German in the 1920s and 1930s.
In dealing with virtually anything, we assign cause and effect, form a chronology, weave a narrative and create a story. This is hard-wired into us. It is how we make sense of things, explain ourselves, communicate with each other and pass the time.
As they are told and retold stories develop a life of their own and acquire power over how we think and what we do. Having accepted a story, we interpret new information to fit in with it. We reject information that contradicts or undermines it.
If we are not careful, stories send us down the wrong track. They can lead to immense pain and suffering. History is full of examples. The German meta-narrative of roughly 1870 to 1945 is just the most egregious of these. We in the UK should remember with particular shame a story about weapons of mass destruction that caused tens of thousands of violent deaths in Iraq.
Actually, it is very simple. If you want the truth you must pursue it laboriously, rigorously, remorselessly. Being honest with yourself may not be a bad thing. It will not get you very far truthwise, even if you are not Adolf Hitler.
This is because the truth lies outside you. It consists of objective fact. You can only be sure that you have it if it can be objectively verified.
The idea that there is deep within you some kind of transcendental truth, which you can access through being honest with yourself, is a sell out to the meta-narratives.
What is so bad about that?
Well, for one thing, all stories contain elements of untruth. This is because to make a good story, we have to edit, polish and perhaps embellish the factual ingredients. Of course we do.
For another, all stories follow what physicists call the arrow of time. We now know that in the real world time does not start at the beginning and proceed via the middle to the end. That is just how we experience things.
Most important of all, current meta-narratives already have too deep a hold and no good will come of this.
By way of example, when did you last read a story about our Government doing a wise, sensible or successful thing? If you take on board what our journalists tell us you have to see Government as persistently, malignantly and deliberately bent on screwing things up. It is not just incompetent. If it were it would occasionally get things right by accident.
This goes beyond a healthy scepticism of authority, telling truth to power, holding to account or any other journalistic slogan. It is a meta-narrative at work, corroding our faith in democracy and constitutional institutions.
You can see a similar meta-narrative at work in Mein Kampf. No good came of that either.
So, as a reader, my plea to writers is ‘whatever you write, be true to the facts’.
By way of footnote, All is True was the original title of Shakespeare’s last play. It is now known as Henry VIII. During a performance of this a cannon was fired, by way of sound effect, which set fire to the Globe Theatre, effectively bringing William Shakespeare’s career to an end. Mr Branagh’s film is about what happened next.
Why would a play about Henry VIII have been called All is True? It dealt with a recent and very contentious period of English history. Perhaps the idea of the title was to encourage punters to think that besides the verse, the costumes and the acting, they were being told what had really happened.
I like to think that the real William Shakespeare would agree with me and not with his Kenneth Branagh impersonation.