The Sultan of Zanzibar, By Martyn Downer

Funny, fast-moving and astounding, this biography goes way beyond what would be considered feasible in fiction.

The Anglo-Irish oddball Horace de Vere Cole is best known for his hoax of 1910 when he and three blacked-up accomplices, including Virginia Woolf, toured the battleship Dreadnaught as the Emperor of Abyssinia and entourage.

This celebrated prank turns out to be only the tip of a fake iceberg. Cole also made a ceremonial visit to Cambridge as the "Sultan of Zanzibar", clogged Piccadilly with phoney roadworks, sabotaged a party with a tidal wave of ping-pong balls, disrupted a wedding by hiring a dozen women to shout "Don't leave me Eddy!" when the groom arrived and deposited manure under the bronze horses in St Mark's Square.

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