The allure of the myth: why we shouldn’t allow a good story to get in the way of reality

Recently I’ve been reworking a poem I wrote some years ago titled Mole Man was my landlord! You may have heard of Mole Man: Bill Lyttle, the eccentric Hackney householder, who caused a serious case of subsidence after 40 years of burrowing beneath his property.

The poem is about how we mythologise ourselves and others. Of course, it’s all too easy to create myths around intriguing characters (and tempting to make ourselves appear intriguing in the process). But the reality of Bill’s house was actually quite prosaic.

At the time I rented a studio flat in his basement, I was 20, had recently arrived in London and was trying to survive on my wages from a part time job. My fellow tenants were mostly students and resting actors. None of us had much money, and Bill’s rents were cheap.

He lived in the rest of the basement. My flat was divided from his by the flimsiest of partitions and a makeshift plywood door. The door was secured by bolts on my side. Before I moved in, I asked him to remove them and fix the door shut.

He did. But sometimes I’d come home late at night to find he’d been in my flat, unscrewed the fixings and left a note saying, “Why not come through and have a drink?” I’d have to find a screwdriver and resecure my space before going to bed.

Yes – despite his comedic burrowing – Mole Man wasn’t a mythic creature at all. He was just another seedy slum landlord – albeit one with an unusual hobby. Yet I chose to focus on the mythical elements of his story in my poem. Why? Because Mole Man was my landlord! sounds more entertaining and is perhaps more likely to be read than My landlord was a creep.

If we want a text to be read, then it needs to be engaging. But as readers and writers, we shouldn’t allow the allure of a myth to blind us to the serious issues that lie beneath it. In the case of my poem, the serious issue is unfit housing – which you’ll find in a one-line stanza.

Mole Man was my landlord!
 
Every so often, I walk people
past the house.
A claim to fame never hurts.
 
Bill – as he was known then,
back in the days when he
advertised his rooms in Loot –
had a yellow Citroën Diane
and an opera-singing ex,
 
which accounted for the piano
in my basement flat but not,
perhaps, the gas-fired fridge
and the lack of a kitchen floor.
 
I used to cook ankle deep in earth.

He was already burrowing.   
Next to my front door
was the entrance
to an underground sauna.
 
Or so he said.
I never gave it a try.
 
Years later, a chasm appeared
in the road above,
swallowing a passing bus,
three parked cars
and a small boy on a bicycle.
 
You’ve heard – of course –
of poetic licence.
I renew mine every year.
 
Now, would you like to see the cuttings?

Architects, don’t underestimate the power of writing

In their 2012 book How Much is Enough? Robert and Edward Skidelsky try to explain why economics has become “the theology of our age.” They consider how other disciplines such as sociology, history and poetry have lost influence. In the case of philosophy, they say: “Philosophy was a powerful force in public life until the early twentieth century, when it retreated into linguistic hair-splitting.”

“If philosophers have lost influence through failing to communicate meaningfully with the wider world, then the same could be said of architects.”

Why am I telling you this? Because I believe that if philosophers have lost influence through failing to communicate meaningfully with the wider world, then the same could be said of architects. And, of course, much architectural thinking and theory is philosophical – encompassing at the very least aesthetics and ethics.

“Being able to write clearly, vividly, and with passion and conviction is an important way to connect with people.”

While visual communication is vital to architecture, verbal communication is essential too. Being able to write (and speak) clearly, vividly, and with passion and conviction is an important way to connect with people, win influence and make ethical and aesthetic arguments for design decisions that look beyond economics.

Writing well involves effort, practice and commitment, but there are lots of simple things you can do to make an immediate difference to the quality of your texts. I’ll explore these in future posts. Please get in touch if there are any particular topics you’d like me to cover.