Boyd Tonkin: Travesties and titillations

The week in books

Literary transvestites come in various shapes and sizes. They predate by centuries Tom MacMaster's long-haul stunt as the internet "Gay Girl in Damascus". Many have been blameless fantasists seeking to compensate via a gender-switched disguise for the repressions of their everyday existence. In the 1940s, the student Philip Larkin penned for his own pleasure two erotically charged schoolgirl stories, Trouble at Willow Gables and Michaelmas Term at St Brides. The jazz buff chose, as his nom de plume, "Brunette Coleman". One detects, in these gymslip escapades, an early solution to the problem later countered more consistently by New Orleans jazz itself: how to escape from the awful burden of being Philip Larkin?

Like most such excursions, the "Brunette Coleman" yarns went unpublished in the poet's lifetime. When such travesty works enter the public realm, questions of intention and deception may arise – although a fair proportion of literature has always been and still is circulated anonymously or pseudonymously. Even in cases without any hint of subterfuge, readers grasp that writers' separate hats may call for separate names. I'm much looking forward to the new psychological thriller by Nicci French, but will expect something rather different from a book signed by either Nicci Gerrard or Sean French.

More disputable are those cases where the author shelters under a pseudonym in order to dodge a real or imagined prohibition on what they wish to say, because of who they are. A classic example came in the mid-1980s when the Anglican parish priest and children's author Toby Forward created "Rahila Khan". "She" wrote well-received broadcast stories about inner-city Asian teenagers. One "exquisitely written" tale, according to the Times Educational Supplement's critic, "almost persuaded me that literature still has some relevance to life. I would like it to be used in all initial-training courses." Impressed, and presumably in no doubt about the truthfulness of voice and vision, Virago chose in 1987 to publish a collection of "Rahila Khan" stories: Down the Road, Worlds Away.

And then unpublished it, when the Rev Forward found himself outed and the book was withdrawn. The whole entertaining saga has (I would hope) the flavour of a period piece, dating as it does from the era when a peculiarly restrictive form of identity politics flourished in British cultural life. These days, it would be pleasant to believe, Forward could on occasions wear Rahila's shalwar kameez while not denying the dog collar. Yet I suspect that – especially in the world of education – the demand that literature should embody some kind of autobiographical veracity would still see the vicar denounced as an impersonating fraud.

So Tom MacMaster's online drag act has a deep hinterland. And the bearded postgrad's invention, or fabrication, of the now-defunct "Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari" and her battles with Syrian homophobia clearly answered a personal need probably stronger than any concern for human rights under dictatorship. Yet MacMaster's folly coincided with a bloody stand-off between despots and democrats in Syria. That deadly serious collision has led to hundreds of actual, not virtual, deaths.

However messy, the MacMaster débâcle does serve a purpose. It underlines in lurid strokes the perils of internet culture. Why are online readers so hopelessly naïve? What happens to our critical faculties on screen? The long and sometimes glorious history of the literary hoax shows that traditional print publication pretty often failed to offer a stamp of authenticity and credibility. Yet, however veiled the author, the work could speak for itself. And later proof of the gap between the personality of the writer and the persona on the page usefully reminded wised-up readers of the way that imagination works. James Macpherson's "Ossian" poems, published 250 years ago, may not have been "translations" of an ancient Celtic bard, as he claimed – but should they rank as great and enduring poetry all the same?

Now, driven by a spurious faith in confession and revelation, texts on the net seem to secure the most primitive and gormless kind of trust. So: bring on the online pranksters. Let's have many more of them, if they can help to teach the habits of sceptical reading to the gullible denizens of cyberspace. But salutary hoaxers should still keep clear of war zones and struggles for liberty. Sometimes, only the truth can set you free.

New masters of the art of truth

As a major honour for non-fiction, the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize has a reputation to maintain. But on a couple of recent occasions, the judges have proved over-fond of topical reportage. Books of glued-together articles have made underwhelming winners. No such danger this time. A gold-plated shortlist selects highlights of history, biography, art, science, literature: Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine, Andrew Graham Dixon's Caravaggio ("The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew", right), Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles, Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, Jonathan Steinberg's Bismarck and John Stubbs's Reprobates. Read the lot, if you can. The result will arrive on 6 July.

Salute the unlikely comrades

I don't suppose that Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jorge Semprú* would have found much to say to each other. Politically, they stood poles apart: the debonair English travel writer and intimate of aristocracy, and the Spanish novelist-screenwriter (of Costa-Gavras's Z, among others) who in Madrid organised the banned Communist Party. Perhaps only a certain, almost pre-war, sense of gentlemanly dash and daring united them. Both died within the past week: Leigh Fermor at 96; Semprún at 87. Yet in death I want to join them: risk-scorning doers and movers who became eloquent witnesses to rich lives, and to the Second World War. Semprú* survived Buchenwald and made of that ordeal a literary masterpiece, The Cattle Track; Leigh Fermor's adventures with the Cretan underground included the kidnapping of the occupied island's commander (and Dirk Bogarde played him in Ill Met By Moonlight). Each, in his own supremely cool way, was a hero of resistance to Nazism. Each year now spares us fewer of those.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tvReview: Too often The Casual Vacancy resembled a jumble of deleted scenes from Hot Fuzz
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David performs in his play ‘Fish in the Dark'
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Jemima West in Channel 4's Indian Summers (Joss Barratt/Channel 4)
tvReview: More questions and plot twists keep viewers guessing
Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003