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Photograph: Type by Nicholas Manthorpe

In praise of storytelling

I’ve just reached the end of a computer game, and it was a biggie: a vast story, huge themes and an enormous cast of characters with fascinating motivations. The fate of the galaxy was at stake, and it was my job to unite many races against a common enemy.

This enemy seemed, at times, to be a metaphor for our very human capacity for self-destruction. Or it may just be that the whole story was a simple extrapolation of US President Ronald Reagan’s musing, in more than one speech in the late 1980s, that “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”

Either way, this game was certainly meaningful. As science fiction writer William Gibson put it (in a talk at New York’s Book Expo in 2010): “imaginary futures are always, regardless of what the authors might think, about the day in which they’re written.”

While attention turns to Britain’s need for more talent in science and engineering, to secure our future prosperity, we still need those whose job is to describe events and unveil the meaning in them, to understand character – the very foundation of all storytelling – and the human condition.

One blogger with the Telegraph made this very point using fashion journalism as an example. Meanwhile, Jonathan Michie, professor of innovation and knowledge exchange at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, asks in the Guardian whether “the social sciences [could] play a greater role in enabling us to reach our economic and societal potential?” Economies are about how people interact, so it must follow that we need people who know how people interact to be economically successful. Not just engineers.

Britain consistently punches above its weight in its production of creative things. This is perhaps because our gift for the assimilation of ideas from beyond our borders (as discussed by Peter Ackroyd, for instance, in his wonderfully scattergun celebration, Albion: the Origins of the English Imagination). It is also, doubtless, because English has lingered in the contrails of the Jet Age as the only truly global language.

It’s not just in the more obvious areas of literature and the visual arts that we are strong and influential.

]The skills in the UK’s studios, and the globalisation of movie production, are such that our movie-making business is no longer the cottage industry that it was for many decades.

We do pop music just as brilliantly now as we did when the Beatles worked global audiences into screaming frenzies. As American megastar Taylor Swift said on BBC Radio 1 this morning, when it was announced that Radio1’s Big Weekend will be held in Norwich this May, the UK’s summer season of live music festivals is unlike anything else in the world.

A generation of British architects have left a stamp on the modern world.

And yes, the UK’s computer games industry is arguing that it, too, should be recognised as offering “cultural products”.

The influential social commentator Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, tells of a project in the early 1980s called Narratives from the Crib. In this project, husband-and-wife university professors studied their two-year-old daughter talking herself to sleep each night. The little girl told herself stories – in much richer language and structure than she she used daily with her parents – and these stories “explained and organized the things that happened to her.” Not only that, but her stories had aspirations, and were interspersed with commentary (“Won’t that be funny?” the little girl asks herself.)

Storytelling is how we learn, and how we learn to do better.

Storytelling comes in many forms. Did you know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a team of historians (rescued from a basement office by William Hague in 2012, and re-housed in a refurbished library in the main FCO building)? Their job is to “provide a long-term, policy-relevant perspective on international issues, and contribute to the collective knowledge and understanding of the FCO and British foreign policy.”

That’s storytelling, right there.

Similarly, in the mid-2000s (back before the global economic meltdown when we all thought we were richer than we actually were, and companies felt they could afford such luxuries), there was a growing vogue for employing corporate ethicists. These were often classicists, people who were trained in ancient structures of argument and decision-making.

Presumably, and unfortunately, the world’s banks either didn’t have them, or didn’t listen to them.

For people have a knack of messing things up out of self-interest (as I was reminded as I zipped across a galaxy of burning pixels, in search of some interstellar Heart of Darkness).

We’ve even messed up the business of telling stories. Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a tremendous satire on the Machiavellian spin of the New Labour years. One of the teachers, the young and ambitious Irwin, is given the job of improving his school’s results. He does this through the cheap trick of arguing against accepted belief and conjuring controversies, just to get attention. Unsurprisingly, he goes on to become a political spin doctor then a TV historian.

Sadly, this mode of storytelling – of always having an eye to the headlines, regardless of true meaning – has become entrenched in our lives. You see it in the sportsman who pays tribute to everyone else who raced, when you know he just wants to punch the air and shout “I AM the greatest!” It’s there in the kicked-off Strictly Come Dancing celeb, earnestly gushing that she’s just had the most amazing journey and really, she’s just so happy that all the other contestants are still dancing.

It’s all so much guff, isn’t it? We should be screaming at our tellies: “That’s not how you really feel, you disingenuous dolts!”

Today’s students may find it odd that there was a time, not very long ago, when people simply couldn’t tell things to the rest of the world instantly, no matter how much they wanted to (unless they worked in the media).

We might feel that storytelling is devalued, now that anyone and everyone can say whatever they want, whenever they want. But good storytelling will continue to have a value and an importance, and we must keep nurturing the people who craft stories in all their myriad media – the communicators, the arguers, the critics, the judges of character, the ones who can give us new perspectives, and those who like asking “What if…?”

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 31 Jan 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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