I have a dear friend who once told me a story about her day involving several glorious encounters. She’d met a street artist with a parrot on his arm, then had tea in Soho where Liam Neeson was on the next table and a stranger had given her flowers. Then she snapped out of her reverie and said, “I don’t know why I said all that. Only the parrot was true.” We both burst into laughter in recognition of the fact that sometimes the desire to embellish a story can prove overwhelming – and be totally harmless. The tall tales didn’t reduce my trust in her as a bosom buddy. And I should probably mention she’s an actress, which means the line between life and art can be a bit porous.
But sometimes you find your mooring to the truth has become loosened to the point you’ve floated off with the tide. It’s astonishing afterwards to find you’ve been so credulous, but who constantly questions the word of those around them? Even the smartest people can be suckers for a well-crafted story, or spies and fraudsters wouldn’t make such stealthy progress. Love, for starters, makes most people vulnerable to deceit, as the ultimate act of faith without guarantees. But sometimes friends can seduce you with beguiling untruths too. I must confess I’ve been swept up by a couple of plausible fantasists in my time. The most memorable involved a friendship two decades ago that became so peculiar I had to withdraw for my own sanity. I’d been introduced to Helen (as I’ll call her) by a mutual friend who worked alongside her in publishing. She was wonderfully coquettish, but with a wide-eyed, giggling schoolgirl quality that could make her suddenly seem twelve years old. Helen swept me up into her world of literary festivals, elderly gentlemen admirers and cocktails. There was nothing not to enjoy. At first.
She’d been telling people I was having a passionate affair with a woman colleague. Spoiler: I wasn’t
Bit by bit, I became disorientated. It started with her flush-cheeked confession at the Hay-on-Wye Festival that she was engaged to a handsome, prize-winning author (now a household name). She said a fortune teller had told her that he was her destiny when she stopped for fuel at a service station. I was startled, as I knew the two had only met that weekend and I’d observed no signs of a coup de foudre. I later learnt he was shocked to the core when a newspaper published a gossip column article about their supposed “engagement”. She then phoned me and said, “How dare you leak that story?”, when it was obvious there was only one source. I also found she’d been telling people at Hay that I was having a passionate affair with a woman colleague. Spoiler: I wasn’t.
Bit by bit, the stories became odder. Helen was leaving the publisher to open her own company, as her current employers didn’t recognise her genius. (The official line was she’d been over-commissioning books at vast cost and had been asked to leave.) Then she said she’d gone back to Trinity College, Cambridge, having been accepted to study Farsi. It turned out she wasn’t registered there, and an Iranian friend could tell within a sentence that she’d no knowledge of Farsi. Then Helen disappeared for some months, before getting in touch to announce she’d been working as an educator in Afghanistan and had written a book about her experience. When we sourced copies it detailed incidents that were identical to events described in a memoir written by the man who had never been her fiancé. A concerned former colleague tried to talk to her, but she said her phone was being tapped by MI5. When he phoned a doctor who’d been one of her gentleman admirers, the medic replied unhelpfully: “Perhaps it is.”
The Helen conundrum peaked after the inquest into the 2005 London 7/7 terrorist attacks. I heard her on BBC Radio 4 saying she’d been in Russell Square when a bomb exploded on a bus and had cradled a dying woman in her lap, though she wasn’t called as a witness at the inquest. A group of people who had once been close to the publisher – drawn in by her vivacity, generosity and, if I’m honest, the enlivening churn of implausibility – met to discuss the matter. We’d become troubled by the way the media never questioned her stories, especially since she claimed to have set up a charity to provide books for Afghan schoolgirls. Inevitably, I could find no trace of it on the register of UK charitable institutions.
I should make it clear that none of us wanted to publicly shame her – something that’s become cruelly common since the advent of Twitter, with no thought for the accused’s mental health. We knew to some extent we’d aided and abetted her in the heady early days. Most people are complicit in their own deception: whether it be a wife who never questions her rogue husband’s whereabouts, or a public that votes for a glib manifesto, full of commitments that will never be honoured. The stark truth is that most of us can’t take too much reality.
Rowan Pelling is co-editor at Perspective and former editor of the Erotic Review