Howard Jacobson: There is a magnificence in lies when they are egregious and managed with aplomb

Some people seem to want us to think they are lying even when they are not
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lies are a foreign country. They do things differently there. In the Land of Lies a German baron rides cannonballs, dances in the belly of a whale, and escapes a swamp by dragging himself out by his own hair. In the Land of Lies the nose of an Italian marionette grows longer with every fib, which is itself a whopper because dead pinewood cannot grow. In the Land of Lies an American president denies having sexual relations in the Oval Office as an intern with plump lips fishes in his flies. In the Land of Lies a Canadian newspaper magnate, grandiose beyond the delusions of common men, swears, "We acted lawfully and are not afraid."

There is a magnificence of sorts in lies when they are egregious and managed with aplomb. So much glamour attaches to them that some figures in public life seem to want us to think they're liars even when they're not. I can't escape the sensation, listening to Alastair Campbell, that he'd like to pass as the Grand Fabricator of the Blair years. Every word he speaks in his diaries is true, of course, and he'd see us in court if we dared suggest otherwise, but there's an arrogant air of fabulism about him. God made the world in seven days - another lie - and Campbell made Tony Blair in about the same period of time.

Galloway too. Accusations follow him like flies around a maddened mule. At this very moment he is temporarily suspended from the House of Commons for not coming quite as clean about his interests as members of that spotless body are meant to come. And though he fulminates loud enough to bring both Houses crashing into the Thames, you can tell he relishes his reputation as a man we can neither nail nor fathom. Were Galloway to be cleared tomorrow of every rumoured wrong, he'd shrink, like a reverse Pinocchio, not only in our eyes but in his own.

We novelists are no better, always boasting what rogue deceivers we are. When Peter Carey chose a liar to end all liars as the narrator of his novel Illywhacker, he was only making explicit what every novelist worthy of the name gets up to. A fiction is what it says it is. This isn't always grasped by those who read novels. A longing for actuality bedevils reading at the moment, perhaps because dishonesty is grown so commonplace that we seek relief from it whenever we open a book. Hence the craze for history. A shame, this, because hyperbole is what the novel's really for. Not life as it isn't, but life as it would be if let off the leash, which is another way of saying life as it really is beneath the illusion of the real.

One of the most famous passages of lying in literature is Pip's description under pressure of his first visit to Miss Havisham's - in which, because he cannot think what else to say, he has Miss Havisham sitting in a black velvet coach, Estella handing her cake and wine on a gold plate, while four immense dogs fight for veal cutlets out of a silver basket. Here, it is as though the hero is the embryonic novelist, getting himself out of a tight spot by virtue of the fertility of his imagination, telling lies but thereby creating a more truthful truth. For Miss Havisham might as well have been eating cake in a velvet coach, so remote is she from Pip's prosaic and parsimonious existence.

Anyone watching Big Brother last week, on the night of Charley's fake eviction, would have been reminded of Great Expectations. Charley, in case you don't watch, is the unemployed (and I would guess unemployable) name-dropping pole-dancer, or something like, whose inexhaustible staccato abuse-fests can be explained only once you've grasped that she's the emissary of Beelzebub and that this is how the lesser devils will talk to us when we are in hell. Every word a spit of venom.

Charley, anyway, was expelled from the house last week, only to be returned to it immediately. As part of this sadistic ruse, a smaller and more silent crowd than usual awaited her expulsion, with just the occasional "Get Charley out!" to be heard, though shouting "Get Charley Out!" is now a national pastime. Back in the house after 10 minutes away from it, and with no more than 30 seconds to gather her wits, she went at once into velvet coach and cake and wine on golden plate mode. To the dismay of the remaining housemates she told a tale of fame and glory that bore not a shred of resemblance to reality. Giant photographs of her were held aloft on banners, she lied, by a delirious crowd who chanted her name and applauded her to the rooftops.

"They love me," she raved, mounting lie upon lie, as the faces around her fell into that deep and colourless abyss which awaits those disappointed in their daydream of unearned celebrity.

Only such a reverie could explain the success of Charley's elaborations. Outside this reverie, screaming multitudes do not declare their love for you on the strength of your having a foul mouth. Even Hitler had to add the promise of national regeneration to his malignant oratory before they'd cheer him. Anyone armed with the slightest knowledge of how people outside fantasy actually behave would have known her for a liar on the spot. But none did. The prize they longed for had gone. Charley had nabbed it.

Thus do liars and the lied-to connive in the same unreality.

Whether Charley, primed by Beelzebub, knew the power of lies, or was even aware that she was lying, remains a question of intense interest. Occasionally she evinces consciousness of falsity, which she defends, like Iago, on the grounds that she is only taking her revenge. I don't make the Iago analogy lightly. Listening to Charley in soliloquy can be like catching a Shakespearean arch-villain off duty, confiding his villainies during a tea-break. We feel the same grudging admiration for the inventiveness of the duplicity, even as we beg justice to send down a thunderbolt and put an end to it for ever.

But even that's more than we can say for the deception of which the BBC has just found itself guilty. Petty, lazy, unprincipled, contemptuous, without wit or imagination, these trashy lies reflect the trashy programme-making they serve. Courses in integrity won't change anything. The bad faith is endemic. Half of what's on television is made by people who despise us - its crudity a jibe at what they see as ours - and those who despise us one way will sure as hell despise us another.

Comments