In 2006, long before the phrase was coined, I watched an early example of ‘fake news’ in the film, Flags Of Our Fathers. It tells the story of Joe Rosenthal’s famous 1945 photograph, taken at the very moment when US soldiers erected a valedictory flag on Mount Suribachi. Except that the photo actually depicts a second, more aesthetic version of the original ascent, taken ninety minutes later than the first, with a different cast in a more heroic configuration and raising a larger flag. This came as a huge surprise to me. Like millions of others, I was familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning image - and the statue created later to recreate the photo - but had accepted it as historical fact.
Of course, it did still happen. A flag was raised both at 10:30 and 12:00, but the later photo’s more dynamic massing of men, all struggling to hold fast to the flag on a windswept summit, is clearly the money shot. Does the American nation feel cheated? Apparently not. The photograph did its work at the time as a boost to morale, and in the years since as an iconic representation of valour and supremacy. What’s not to like? For me (a Limey who did not grow up speaking German and for which I thank the US), plenty. If history is what gets repeated, we should take great care with the initial account.
The truth can, of course, be interpreted differently without any manipulative intent. Most people who remember The Singing Ringing Tree describe it according to the level of fear it induced in them, but we can at least now mine the internet for corroboration. Wasn’t there a man-bear in the show whose lips emitted two concurrent languages…or was I just too young to know about dubbing? Human error and a tendency towards ‘in a nutshell’ retelling inevitably smooth the edges off any incident. The ‘facts’ become established and then irrefutable once retold to the next generation. They become stories, yarns, far more powerful and harder to challenge than actuality.
A local example of this yarning is the legendary visit made in 1921 by the poet, T.S. Eliot, to Margate. I walk past the ‘T.S. Eliot Pavilion’ on Margate’s seafront, most days. This is the Nayland Rock shelter glorified by the town as the spot where Eliot’s celebrated, 433-line, five-part poem The Waste Land was written. That’s a lot of sea-gazing on a hard seat. However, we know from Tom Eliot’s own correspondence that only “a rough draft of part of Part III” was produced “while sitting in a shelter on the front”. A few neighbourhood organisations do bother to own up to this detail but you can sell more ice-cream with a simpler story.
The result is that a small industry has arisen from the Eliot connection. The shelter now has Grade II-listed status, though this did not deter the council from plonking a huge public toilet next door on which, bizarrely, Eliot’s commemorative plaque has been placed. When Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, put her weight behind listing the pavilion in 2009, she confirmed that her late husband "spent much of his days in the shelter on the front from where he composed part of The Waste Land”. But why this one, when Eliot was actually staying in the next town at The Albemarle Hotel, Cliftonville (now demolished and replaced by the hulking great Genting Casino where apparently “you can relax and feel free”)?
The obvious answer is that Eliot name-checks Margate Sands in the poem. Is this sufficient evidence to prove that no other shelter along the sands between Cliftonville and Westonville (now known as Westbrook) were also possible sanctuaries? October and November in Margate are cold and windswept. Would Eliot have walked along the coast each day in poor weather, passing up on other shelters for this one? Was this cultivated, discreet, literary genius not more likely to choose a shelter from which he could nip back to his own hotel to use the Gents, rather than ligging it at The Nayland Rock Hotel?
There were also far bleaker bits of beach to be had, more in keeping with the poet’s mindset at the time. Footfall past the shelter in autumn would still have been heavy, more so at weekends, with crowds heading for the Westonville Concert Pavilion on the promontory, many taking a seat in the shelter on the way. How feasible is it that “I can connect nothing with nothing” sprang to Eliot’s mind in an atmosphere of jollity and bustle?
Detective work aside, the glorification of this pavilion appears to have been the result of assumption and not fact. Perhaps there is proof beyond the (Albemarle Hotel-headed) letters of Tom and Vivien Eliot, and I’m being too deductive myself. But when a Guardian journalist surmised in his article that Eliot was actually checked in at the Nayland Rock Hotel because it shares the same name as the shelter, it shows how a cascade of conjecture begins. Take a few bits of information, swap them around, do a bit of guesswork for the gaps and - you have a drama rather than a documentary. An emotional connection rather than a plain reflection. And today’s infamous storytellers - Messrs Trump, Johnson, Farage - know this only too well.