A couple of Christmases ago, my partner Edie made me an advent calendar filled with entries from the Guardian Experience series. Against a gold background, she arranged 24 shiny pink doors. Behind each, an image taken from the Guardian website, where a member of the public was looking into the camera maybe sternly, maybe wistfully, under a headline like “Experience: My Tongue is Worth £1m” or “Experience: I Punched a Bear.” It was possibly the best present I have ever received.
For those unfamiliar with this series: every Saturday, the British Guardian newspaper publishes a piece in its Magazine section which tells the story of, well, an interesting experience someone has had. At the time of writing, the website lists some 642 of these articles. They range in focus from the extraordinary (“I was swallowed by a hippo”) to the hilarious (“I got stuck in a chimney”) to the terrifying (''I had a date with a serial killer”). Some are sweet and touching (“I've been writing to my pen pal for 81 years”), or amusing in a “British police show about a tiny rural village” sort of way (“Someone stole my cheese”); others tell tales very much from the margins of human experience (“I dropped two nuclear bombs”). At times, they seem like they could form the basis for a novel, or a film (“I pulled a 1,500-year-old sword out of a lake”). All the articles are written in pretty much the same style — gathered mostly from audience submissions, they appear 'as told to' a rotating host of writers, none of whom force anything like their own personal perspective on the work.
Overall, they are an absolute treasure trove. If you've never come across them before, just load up the Guardian website and keep clicking, it's probably enough reading material for your entire Christmas. In my opinion, they should combine them all into a big book, released on a prestigious imprint like Penguin Classics, with around two hundred pages of notes and a thirty-page introduction, ideally written by one of the leading scholars of the Guardian Experience section (ideally, that is, by me). I love Guardian Experience columns in the sort of pure and puppyish way where, if I ever had an experience worth featuring in one of them, I would consider it one of the crowning achievements of my life (I'll admit: I've considered writing into them with the story of the time I walked off a cliff by mistake. But I'm afraid of blowing my load — what if next year I receive a face transplant from my dad, or swallow a hive of bees?).
But why do I love them so much? On one level, it's just because they're so different from the rest of what is produced by broadsheet newspapers or available on the internet. The Guardian Experience column serenely transcends the baffling rush of the 24-hour news cycle; unlike op-ed writing, it forces no hot takes on us — in fact, the Guardian Experience column hardly aspires to make any judgements about its subject matter at all. That is left to, if anyone, the reader. It has none of the wordy, drawn-out twists and turns of the long read — the stories are as direct and to the point as their headlines. The column tells stories that are, often, extraordinary, but they have a frank and unassuming simplicity, which lends them a universalism quite unlike most of the rest of what the 21st century has produced.
Of course, tales of extraordinary things happening to ordinary people are bound up in the fabric of human narrative. This brings us onto something else I really love: Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay "The Storyteller." Ostensibly, the essay is an investigation of the work of the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, but it's entirely possible to get a lot out of it without ever even bothering to learn who Leskov is (I was obsessed with the essay for a while before I remembered to Google his name). At its heart is a distinction Benjamin draws between “experience” and “information.”
Experience, in Benjamin's understanding, is what is communicated in stories; in particular, those which are “passed on from mouth to mouth,” by those who have traveled from afar. “When someone makes a journey, he has a story to tell,” Benjamin writes. Indeed, he claims, experience is “the source from which all storytellers have drawn.” Experience is, Benjamin tells us, “practical” — but its usefulness is not straightforwardly obvious like the usefulness of, say, a can opener: “In one case, the usefulness may lie in a moral; in another, some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim.” And the specific usefulness of any given story might change with different tellings, might alter over time like whiskey maturing in barrels.
“A story... does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its energy and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.” Benjamin cites a tale from Herodotus, of a ruined king stoically bearing the sufferings of his son and daughter, only to break down weeping when he sees one of his old servants imprisoned. Herodotus gives no interpretations, but the story, Benjamin points out, could be taken to teach any one of a number of lessons about grief, fate, power. “After thousands of years,” he says, “this story from ancient Egypt is still capable of provoking astonishment and reflection. It is like those seeds of grain that have lain for centuries in the airtight chambers of the pyramids and have retained their germinative power to this day.”
Increasingly, what is communicated in our tales is not “experience” but “information.”
But nowadays, Benjamin complains, “experience has fallen in value.” Indeed, “it looks as if it may fall into bottomlessness. Every glance at a newspaper shows that it has reached a new low — that our image not only of the external world but also of the moral world has undergone changes... which were previously thought impossible.” He goes on: “The epic side of truth — wisdom — is dying out,” being rendered extinct by “the secular productive forces of history.”
Increasingly, what is communicated in our tales is not “experience” but “information.” Information is practical, but in a direct way — it lacks the enigmatic richness of experience. Information is supposed to, simply, furnish those who absorb it with the means to navigate their immediate surroundings, and in so doing, it locks us further into them. Experience, carried from afar, has license to be communicated in fantastical stories: the truth they express transcends mere verifiability. Information, by contrast, “must absolutely sound plausible.” And so, “every morning brings us news from across the globe, yet we are poor in noteworthy stories... nowadays no event comes to us without already being shot through with explanations.” We live, simply, in the world that we do: we are not allowed word of anything beyond the drudgery that we daily face.
You may have noticed that, since 1936, this phenomenon has only intensified. At times it feels as if we can no longer move for the furious rush of politics, can no longer penetrate the idiot mass of insider op-eds to reach real understanding. Information has proliferated so much it's beginning to betray its own concept: there are so many facts about the world now that none of them seem useful; learning about how the world really is can't help anyone do anything beyond drown in it. The Guardian Experience column, then, strikes me as a small avenue of resistance: an attempt to revive Benjamin's concept of, well, experience for the internet age.
Guardian Experience articles often come to the UK from afar, from Turkey to Antarctica. They have presumably been fact-checked, but their power extends well beyond mere confirmation that they happened. What else can we say of a story like “I was swallowed by a hippo,” but that it is multifaceted and enigmatic?
“I've no idea how long I stayed under,” former Zambezi river guide Paul Templer writes at one point. “Time passes very slowly when you're in a hippo's mouth.” Is this a lesson? A reflection on what it's like to face death? Or is it just a statement of fact? Is Templer heroic for helping to ward off the hippo attack, or foolish for getting himself (and his passengers, and the other guides) into this situation in the first place? Is this a story about hostile nature attacking fragile man, or the hubris of Westerners in a world they don't understand?
Towards the end of the story Templer, having escaped from the attack with the loss of his arm, resumes his job as a river guide. “Two years later I led an expedition down the Zambezi and as we drifted past the stretch where the attack had taken place, a huge hippo lurched out of the water next to my canoe. I screamed so loudly that those with me said they'd never heard anything like it. He dived back under and was never seen again. I'd bet my life savings it was the same hippo, determined to have the final word.” Is this just a coincidence? Is it evidence of a connection? When the hippo swallowed Templer, did they forge a lasting bond? The nature of the content leaves it up to the audience to decide.
The resistance embodied in these stories is only a small act: it cannot stem the tide of information by itself. But for this, we shouldn't blame the column. The Guardian Experience column gives voice to a longing for something that, otherwise, we might not even know we lack. That, perhaps, is where its beauty really lies.