Clear night skies brought a sharp evening drop in temperature – down to eleven degrees by 10.30 pm. The car headlights picked out trees beginning to show a brownness around the edges and a curving line of cats’ eyes marking the course of the road ahead. The cats’ eyes were deeply resonant of childhood journeys; the single white line of them marking the centre of country roads; the whites and the reds and the greens and the oranges showing the junctions of the motorway network that mile by mile was extending across England.
The cats’ eyes recalled a story told that the man who had invented them had become a millionaire but had held on to a belief that there were things more important than money and had built his factory around a tree so as to avoid cutting the tree down. There was no means of verifying the story – no search engine into which the relevant terms might be entered and encyclopaedias in libraries never had answers to the sort of question that a small boy might ask, like ‘did a man really build a factory round a tree?’
Resisting the inclination to start typing search terms into Google, the thought occurs, did it matter? Did it really make any difference whether the story was a piece of historical truth or an odd piece of fabrication? No-one was going to be hurt, either way. It was not going to alter the fact of history; it was not going to affect the way people saw the world. It was just a nice story.
We seem to have lost the capacity for stories, for imagination. The first reaction to a tale being told has become an immediate seeking for verification. We have become a society of logical positivists, or whatever the correct term is for those who accept only those things they can see or touch, those things that are verifiable, those things that may be proven.
Is truth the only value now? If something is not a matter of historical record, then is it now to be discarded? There must have been countless stories told in the past that had not a shred of historicity, yet enriched the lives of the listeners, that helped create our culture. The myths and the legends passed down from generation to generation; the tales told around fires on cold winter nights; even personal reminiscences; they may fail the truth test, but we would not say they should not be told.
Able to know everything at the click of a mouse, we are in danger of having the capacity to imagine nothing.