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Meet the fantasists.


buntingI SUPPOSE SINCE using the imagination is primarily what writers and poets do I shouldn’t be surprised if some of them turn out to be over-imaginative when describing events in their own lives. It can certainly compensate for the rather mundane and unexciting existence that most authors tend to lead. When it came to the life of the late Basil Bunting, however, I half expected some international shenanigans, since I knew he’d had a much-travelled life in Europe and the Middle East from before the Second World War to not long afterwards. What I didn’t expect was to end up thinking he was a great fantasist, a colossal fabricator and embroiderer of his own life.

Before I read Richard Burton’s hefty biography of him, A Strong Song Tows Us,1 I already knew the most well-known tale of how Bunting, a journalist for The Times, holed up in a hotel in Iran where a mob outside chanted for his death, slipped out incognito and joined them in their chants. It’s a fine story for a poet and until I read Burton’s biog I was happy to belief it. Now I’m extremely sceptical.

I’m a great fan of Bunting’s poetry, so I’m not trying to belittle him: it’s just that I get the sneaky feeling that so much of what he told people was either exaggerated or unverifiable to the point of being Walter Mittyish. He says, for instance, that when he was working for British intelligence in Tehran during the war he captured a “very famous German spy”. He makes it sound as if he personally clapped hands on this spy and apprehended him, which, though possible, I doubt. And it’s also the detail of him being a “very famous” spy: what, like the Nazi equivalent of James Bond? So famous he could move around without somebody or other taking him out of action? He couldn’t be just another common or garden spy, could he — that is, one who was so good that you didn’t know he was a spy?

In another wartime story, set in Italy, Bunting describes how he swapped a bottle of whisky for two motorbikes. Now, with the black market being what it was, I can go along with one motorbike, but two strikes me as de trop. This is venturing into Falstaffian eleven men in buckram territory; especially when Bunting then claims that a couple of his men fitted cylinders from Spitfire engines to them (is that possible?) and he got one of them up to 110 mph on the runway. Up till this point I’m not even sure whether we knew he could ride a bicycle, let alone handle a motorbike (a la T E Lawrence, no doubt) at top speed. And it’s the fact that it’s always about him that makes me suspicious; he is always the centre of attention, in the thick of things and important.

Sometimes you don’t know if someone is merely exaggerating, which we can all be guilty of, or completely making something up.

IT DID GET me thinking about fantasists I have known. Sometimes you don’t know if someone is merely exaggerating, which we can all be guilty of, or completely making something up. Many years ago a friend and I were both staying overnight in college rooms before interviews when we encountered another prospective student. After a couple of drinks he regaled us with tales of his physical prowess, including how he single-handedly one night fought off a bunch of skinheads. They weren’t in buckram but they did reach double figures. And he broke the arm of one of them with an umbrella. Or was it a lamppost? He wasn’t much bigger than me, which is to say a nine stone weakling, and I could barely contain my obvious disbelief. He also told us how he had totally trashed someone’s room. Thankfully he didn’t suggest showing us how. Even today my friend and I recall this chap with amusement, even though we can’t remember his name or what he intended to study. He probably became a banker. Or a politician.

I encountered another fantasist who turned up at work one lunchtime on his day off. He was drunk and boasted about how he’d just taken his advanced driving test and was now celebrating. That was a remarkable achievement since he had neither taken the test, nor passed it, nor indeed passed any driving test. He couldn’t drive at all. That level of fantasy takes chutzpah, I have to say.

I still don’t know if people like this really believe what they say or or are even aware they’re telling massive porkies. I do know that if you want to employ the technique to enhance your standing in people’s eyes, it’s very easy and more effective than not (there are always going to be sceptics, but the key is to make sure they can never find contradictory evidence).

A friend and I once tried this at university. A student my companion vaguely knew but didn’t like started talking to us in the pub. He asked us what we were both up to. Possessed by a spirit of mischief and without thinking I immediately said we’d both packed in our studies and and begun training as Formula One racing drivers. He believed us. My friend knew something about cars so could come up with a few choice engineering details. I just added stuff about blondes and pitstops. It was so easy.

I should have learned then that fantasy was the way forward in life. I’d successfully fooled someone into thinking I was a trainee racing driver when the only thing I’d driven till then was a Land Rover – very badly, round a field – and hadn’t taken my test. It must have been the residual Protestant truth conditioning that made me abjure fantasy as a tool for social advancement. Because when you don’t hyperbolise and fantasise people often don’t believe you when you do tell the truth. That is very annoying. Like when I drank sake with Julie Christie at Alexandra Palace. And that did happen. Honest.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

  1. UK readers: Here.

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