Facts found in fiction


Can information found in fiction be trusted? By definition much of it is imaginary, but some of it can sound very convincing. However  most factoids are quickly proved or disproved online (but not so easily in the case of Le Carre, and with mixed results with Borges). Three examples from recent reading…


In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (in Ficciones, Grove Press 1962 page 19) he refers to a book that had appeared ‘in the library catalogues of Bernard Quaritch’  – A General History of Labyrinths by Silas Haslam. Quaritch is a real bookstore and is still trading, but the book is imaginary and cannot be found in any library (despite some wag’s  entry at GoodReads  with an Amazon ‘buy’ button.) However 6 pages later in a footnote Borges  writes – ‘Russell (The Analysis of Mind 1921 page 159) conjectures that our planet was created a few minutes ago, provided with a humanity which “remembers” an illusory past.’  A fairly typical Borges conceit? No, the book exists and the conjecture is indeed on page 159,  although as an idea, logically possible, it is swiftly dismissed by (Bertrand)  Russell*.


Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight (2012) is a ‘cosy’ detective novel featuring the real life crime fiction writer Josephine Tey (1896-1952) as a sleuth and sapphist. She is in 1930s Portmeirion solving a murder, while Alfred Hitchcock is casting a film. A couple of women friends, driving down to join her, stay at the Mytton and Mermaid hotel just outside Shrewsbury. Nicola Upson describes this as a half way house for people driving from London to Portmeirion (on the Welsh coast) then a full day’s journey. She states that it was bought for this purpose by Portmeirion’s architect and owner Clough Williams Ellis. TRUE! Clough actually bought it and  redesigned it in the early 1930s. It is still there on the banks of the  Severn – serving a good afternoon tea, according to tripadvisor.


In Le Carre’s Agent Running in the Field (2019) the aging spy  worries that he will be soon sent to the Retirement section ‘…who will offer me tantalizing openings in the arms industry, private contracting or other laying-out places for old spies such as The National Trust, the Automobile Association and private schools in search of assistant bursars…’ But can old spies just walk into jobs at the A A and the NT? Is that greying bursar at the exclusive boarding school an old spook who has handed in his Biretta? They have served their country and may deserve further employment; certainly after WW2 openings were made in many businesses for old soldiers, especially wounded ones, so it’s hard to hold up the LIE card confidently…

Portmeirion is now a 5 hour drive from London, without stopping and in good traffic. The Mytton and Mermaid  is just over half way and would still make a good stop off. It is  haunted by an eccentric  former owner ‘Mad’ Jack Mytton, or so they say..

*In investigating memory-beliefs, there are certain points which must be borne in mind. In the first place, everything constituting a memory-belief is happening now, not in that past time to which the belief is said to refer. It is not logically necessary to the existence of a memory-belief that the event remembered should have occurred, or even that the past should have existed at all. There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that “remembered” a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago. Hence the occurrences which are CALLED knowledge of the past are logically independent of the past; they are wholly analysable into present contents, which might, theoretically, be just what they are even if no past had existed.
I am not suggesting that the non-existence of the past should be entertained as a serious hypothesis. Like all sceptical hypotheses, it is logically tenable, but uninteresting.

2 thoughts on “Facts found in fiction

  1. Roger

    I came across an account of Russell’s theory that then suggested that the universe was going to be created in the future and that we might be not-yet-created false memories – an eeven more alarming idea that’s impossible to refute.
    Nimrod (Charles Apperley) wrote a fascinating and tragic biography of Mytton.

  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Thanks Roger– I like the false uncreated memories theory, that too is rather Borges-like. I know the Nimrod book and see it now and then. He appears on the roof of the hotel once a year and jumps off… The hotel seems to thrive on wedding parties


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