BOOK REVIEW / Set adrift by his dream girl: 'Siren Song' - Gordon Honeycombe; Hutchinson, 16.99

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The Independent Culture
TO THE Warrant Officer of HMS Ark Royal, it seemed a routine case. David Palmer, a young Able Seaman on board, had been talking on the phone to a man from outside; the Navy operator had eavesdropped; and now Palmer was hauled in front of the ship's authorities, cautioned, and told to explain himself.

'Someone overheard you having conversations with a male caller telephoning the ship that included words and phrases of a very affectionate or sexual nature,' the Navy investigator told him. 'You are said to have been heard blowing down the phone and tapping something and saying you loved this person . . .'

Palmer was unable to deny the allegation. It was true that he had been talking to a man outside. Certainly, it was a very private conversation. Yet the endearments had been addressed not to the man but to the man's sister Diana, with whom Palmer was in love. He had a sheaf of letters from her to prove it.

And the tappings? Well, the young sailor explained, his girlfriend had throat trouble and could not talk. So they had agreed a code: one tap on the receiver with a coin meant yes; two taps, no; three taps, I love you. Her brother Jonathan had put through the call before handing over the phone. And while the naval operator listened in and his girlfriend tapped away in response, the sailor had poured out his fantasies over the telephone.

A quick look at the sheafs of scented letters addressed to him from shore, full of girlish enthusiasm, convinced the investigators to drop their case against Palmer. But they never realised the bizarre story behind the incident, which the former newscaster (and playwright, novelist and RSC actor) Gordon Honeycombe unfolds in Siren Song.

It began when Palmer was given by a shipmate the name and address of Diana Reed, a model of 20 who was looking for a naval pen-friend. He began to write to her, addressing her as Piglit and signing himself as Pooh. And such was the contrast between her playful love letters and his drab life on board ship that Palmer began to take the relationship seriously. In less than two years, the two had exchanged 400 letters and agreed to marry.

There was just one problem. Palmer had fallen in love without ever meeting his wife-to-be, nor speaking to her on the phone, nor even seeing her picture. Yet the letters conjured up an entire charmed life. Diana was an attractive young model who flew around the world on modelling assignments. She owned a small yacht, and a dollars 220,000 house in Santa Barbara. The only blot on the horizon - one which unfortunately prevented her from meeting her loved one - was the obduracy of her father, who would have nothing to do with him.

The tales in the letters were backed up by Jonathan, a property developer who acted as a letter-box between the two of them. (One of the packages was a lock of Palmer's pubic hair, sent to his loved one at her request.) Jonathan spent time with him in Singapore, in Malta, and came to meet his parents. He even went so far as to help him choose the clothes for his wedding day. Apart from her brother, though, the only evidence of Diana's existence was a pair of knickers she had sent to Palmer, heavily dosed with eau-de-Cologne.

As the big day approached, Palmer began to send money to his girlfriend; first as presents for her birthday, then later as his contribution to the cost of flying her half-way across the world to see him. This alarmed his parents back home in Warrington, who tried to stop him paying away some pounds 18,000 to a girlfriend he had never met.

They were right, and Palmer was wrong. 'Diana' did not exist. The tapping and the breathing that he heard, the letters and the presents that he received - all of them were from Jonathan, who was in fact a lonely con-man of 42 called Bryan Tippett, who lived with his mother and sister in a red-brick semi in the suburbs of Southampton. Tippett's scheme was discovered only after he tried to hire a thug to beat up the eavesdropping Ark Royal operator. Even then, Palmer found the truth almost impossible to believe, and declared himself still in love with his Diana.

No novelist would get away with such an implausible plot. How could anyone, even a very young and not very bright sailor, have been taken in so completely? In his search for reasons why Diana could not meet her lover, Tippett came up with a series of explanations, ranging from muggings to sudden deaths to emergency gynaecological operations, each more ludicrous than its predecessor. Yet Palmer believed every one of them. He did not even stop to wonder why, if Diana were a millionairess, she should need or want the few thousand pounds that he was sending her; nor why, if she were so attractive and met so many beautiful people, why she needed a pen-friend in the first place.

Concentrating on the main job of telling the story, Honeycombe is careful not to speculate too wildly about this. It seems clear, however, that David Palmer was conned only partly because he was bewitched by glamour and the promise of a job on land in one of her family businesses. More importantly, it was the staggering dullness of his work on board Ark Royal, at best partly-skilled and at worst merely menial, that made him desperate to escape and willing to put his trust in anyone who would love him. But the story raises another puzzle. What were the motives of the con-man himself? The work that Tippett put into the exercise - not merely his letters, but also tapping away for hours on end in draughty phone boxes - was clearly way out of proportion to what he made from the deception. Although Palmer paid out some pounds 18,000, Tippett spent most of it during the course of the campaign itself, and used some to entertain Palmer at expensive restaurants and hotels in Singapore and Malta. All that ingenuity could have allowed him to steal 10 times as much from a more promising victim.

Perhaps there was a degree of homosexual attachment to the young sailor, who spent all his free time on Ark Royal sunbathing or working out. But Tippett never tried to seduce him. Rather, he claimed at his trial in 1989 that he actually liked the young man, and enjoyed playing his own part in the love story. Moreover, Honeycombe reveals, there was a strangely compulsive bond between the fraudster and his victim as they built their fantasy world together. After Tippett was found guilty at Portsmouth Crown Court in 1990, he was sent to jail for 10 months; the heartbroken Palmer, meanwhile, went back to the Navy and found a local girlfriend. Real life must have been drab by comparison.