Terence Blacker: Losing faith in the story of the moral

In our nervous age, fiction is mistrusted and seems to lack relevance

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What exactly is the point of a pantomime? All those rehearsals, those uncomfortable and sometimes inappropriate costumes, the feeble jokes, that whole he's-behind-you thing: what positive good do they actually provide? A school Christmas pantomime, taking up time and resources at a busy moment in the year, should surely at least acknowledge some of the pressing social issues facing children today.

This practical, and not entirely unreasonable, approach to seasonal entertainment has been spectacularly exemplified this week by a school in Coventry, supported by its local charity, Warwickshire Crimebeat. At Keresley Newland Primary School, an enterprising and well-named teacher called Justin Risebrow decided that for this year's Christmas production at the school, he would rewrite Handsel and Gretel for rough, tough contemporary Britain.

In the Risebrow version of Grimm, the brother and sister, played by eight-year-olds in the pantomime, are violent little yobs. Having stolen their mother's purse, they go to the gingerbread house of an ancient, defenceless woman and trash it. Hansel and Gretel are arrested but, at the end of the play, are released on license. According to the director of the play, it is "a great opportunity... to remind people that bullying will not be tolerated."

There has, of course, been a row – a political-correctness-gone-mad, killing-the-spirit-of-Christmas row of the type which is as predictable as a carol concert.

Poor Mr Risebrow. It must have seemed like a good idea to give the school pantomime a bit more edge and purpose and this year to pass on a Crimebeat message about bullying. Yet behind such well-meaning gestures, there lies a fashionable distrust of fantasy, of the imagination.

The reason folk tales collected and re-told by the brothers Grimm have survived for two centuries is precisely because they transcend place and time. The truths the stories convey, moral or otherwise, are more beguiling and potent in their own mysterious ways than any citizenship lesson from a teacher or brightly coloured leaflet from a charity or council.

Today, though, the story is profoundly mistrusted. In our nervous, utilitarian age, fiction lacks relevance; there is something frivolous and pointless about made-up stuff. Fiction of the kind contained in books has suddenly begun to seem absurdly old-fashioned. Like the Risebrow Hansel and Gretel, novels have taken to disguising themselves in the clothes of reality.

Weirdly, the retreat from telling stories is being led by those who once wrote them. Reality Hunger, an anti-fiction manifesto written by the American ex-novelist David Shields, has been praised by writers as varied as JM Coetzee and Geoff Dyer. A novel is too artificial to deal with an unbearably artificial world, Shields's argument goes. It now needs something called "truthiness".

This cold-eyed, reductive view of what fiction can and cannot do will appeal to academics, politicians and possibly even the occasional teacher. Anyone who has read a great novel or enjoyed a Christmas school pantomime will know that it is very far from being the whole story.


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