The Sultan of Zanzibar, By Martyn Downer

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The Independent Culture

When Horace de Vere Cole married Mavis Wright, he refused to give the press the date of the wedding. With good reason. On a similar occasion, this practical joker had placed a dozen pretty young women outside a church. When the bridegroom arrived, all flung their arms round him, screaming "Don't leave me Eddy".

During the 1914-18 war, while soldiers on leave were dining at the Four Hundred Club, Cole arrived in evening dress, flanked by two acolytes in ecclesiastical garb, each carrying a basket filled with ping-pong balls. Cole proceeded to bless all present, and before long balls were flying round the room, making dancing or serving impossible.

Even his simplest jokes had a subversive intent; bullying aggression lurked beneath the humour. So Martyn Downer observes in this wholly engaging biography of a mischievous man with a malicious streak.

Cole's father was English, a major in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and his mother Irish. Famous solely for his hoaxes, Cole brought to them flair, imagination, subversiveness and great cheek. But what motivated him? At the age of ten a severe bout of diphtheria left his hearing impaired. Less able to connect, he slipped more readily into a fantastical world of his own making. At Eton he could hear little of what was being taught. Frustration and anger deepened when his deafness barred him from the army.

Instead, he went to Cambridge. There a reforming and liberating spirit sharpened his anti-authoritarianism. Virginia Woolf's younger brother, Adrian Stephen, became a friend, playing a key role in Cole's jokes. They first tricked the mayor of Cambridge in the name of the Sultan of Zanzibar and then worked together on the famous "Dreadnought hoax" of 1906. Downer triumphs in his account of how empire is ridiculed and bureaucracy mocked when a warship the length of Westminster Abbey, the largest then in existence, is successfully breached by five young men and one woman, posing as Abyssinian princes in theatrical dress.