So, who told the biggest whoppers? Was it Amerigo Vespucci, the oily Florentine who claimed to have discovered America a year before Columbus, thus succeeding in having the New World named after him? Or perhaps you prefer Alexander VI – the Borgia Pope – who dissolved his daughter Lucrezia’s first marriage on the grounds that she was still a virgin, despite the fact that he himself had known her carnally.
Hmm, well I suspect that a new – and admittedly minor – candidate for the title might be Philip Kerr, the author of this cruiserweight tome The Penguin Book of Lies. Kerr claims in his introduction to have had a fixation with lies and liars since childhood: ‘While my friends fenced with imaginary swords and upheld the honour of the King’s Musketeers, I was alone in venerating the person of the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin … and from the age of eleven Machiavelli’s The Prince remained by my bedside.’ He even professes to have chosen his subsequent careers as lawyer, adman and author with this obsession in mind.
Tell us another, Phil. I suspect that like any other jobbing hack, he probably hadn’t even thought about the subject of this book until his agent took him out to lunch and mentioned the fat commission. Then I envisage him rushing down to the library to research the subject and prepare a pitch for the publishers. Certainly his introduction shows the evidence of this, containing as it does some twenty-two quotations in twenty-seven paragraphs, but little of the original theory that one might expect from such a dedicated apostle and lifelong scholar of untruth.
But never mind that. No book which brackets Adolf Hitler and Robert Maxwell in the same category can be all bad, and there’s certainly enough here to wile away an afternoon with. The arrangement is chronological, and we thus begin with entries from the Bible, Plato and Notker the Stammerer, progress through Martin Luther, Casanova and Mark Twain, and end up with Oliver North and dear old Dickie Nixon. Along the way there are plenty of ‘gooseberries to mayke the tong watter’, such as this wonderful piece of doublethink from Loyola: ‘That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.’ Just makes you want to send your kids to Stonyhurst, doesn’t it?
Less weighty matters also prove to be fertile sources of dishonesty. Samuel Pepys, having been discovered by his wife kissing the maid Deb ‘with my main on her cunny’, does a cracking job of explanation which would be the envy of Rene in ’Allo ’Allo, and someone called Albert Z Carr offers some advice on the ethics of ‘business bluffing’, which is the sort of thing that got Ernest Saunders to the position of respect and honour that he holds today. My own personal favourite is L Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology, who created an odyssey of adventure out of the dull canvas of his teenage years. Conveniently forgetting that he had been a mathematics student in Washington DC, he persuaded his followers that he had actually spent his youth wandering the Orient alone, talking to holy men and impressing natives with his courage and wisdom. (‘I remember one time learning Igoroti, an Eastern primitive language, in a single night … ’)
The Nazis come in for a fair bit of scrutiny too, and not surprisingly perhaps as Philip Kerr is the author of two acclaimed thrillers set in Thirties Berlin. The Gestapo chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner proves himself to be one of the most craven liars of all time at his Nuremberg come-uppance, asserting ‘in a session of breathtaking high-wire lying’ that he knew nothing at all about the genocide of the Jews. When he later dismissed all the documents and death sentences signed by him as forgeries, even his fellow prisoners in the dock began to look embarrassed, and on the second day of his trial, only Jodl was prepared to talk to him.
Kaltenbrunner, of course, had a good reason to lie – there was a bit of rope waiting for him in 1946 – but Kerr’s selection shows that dishonesty springs up often enough without any prompting, and nowhere more so than in our own glorious Press. He includes a News of the World story about three Wolverhampton housewives claiming to have been kidnapped by aliens (who, like nearly all creatures from outer space, bear an uncanny resemblance to Ian Hislop – ‘They are four feet tall. They have no hair. They have strange-looking noses; thin arms; I can’t see their legs’). Surprisingly, Kerr shies away from some of the more amusing Sunday Sport whoppers, which would have leavened the rather serious tone of the book even more effectively.
I could pick out more stories, but ultimately the question one has to ask about this book is ‘was it worth the effort?’. Kerr has done his job adequately enough, but his material is stretched, and by halfway the reader begins to wonder if there was really ever more than an amusing newspaper article in the idea. Many of the lies just aren’t funny or interesting.
Blame the publishers. Looking at their output over the last few years, one gets the impression that the editors at Penguin, Oxford and Faber are pretty close to bottom barrel with this ‘So-and-so Book of Whatever’ lark. We’ve had Ghosts, Military Anecdotes, Dreams, Death, Curious Words, Ballads and Aphorisms, and there are a few more on the way. It can only be a matter of time till a new volume appears: The Faber Book of Faber Books.
In the meantime, I would recommend The Penguin Book of Lies only to those sad, sad people who as children liked Richelieu more than D’Artagnan.