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04 February 2013 @ 02:04 pm
Making up stories  
Poets on Facebook, who can hardly help being aware of an ongoing plagiarism scandal, will guess why I should currently be occupied with folk who are not quite as they seem. But in fact I've been fascinated for years by people who reinvent themselves, who discard their past, their country, their culture, their name, and become someone else.

Some, of course, are just frauds, like "Robert Maxwell", born Ján Hoch, and I've always wondered if changing one's name does in fact release one to some extent from conscience and shame – not having a family name to dishonour, as it were. And some are opportunists: whenever there's a disaster, like a tsunami, you can bet some persons presumed dead in it will in fact simply have jettisoned their old identity, and a life which wasn't proving satisfactory, and wandered off in search of a new one.

But the ones who interest me most are rather more positive and proactive about it; they have an image of themselves which isn't quite what nature dealt them, so they set out to rectify the error. There are two in particular whose reinvention was almost total, and whom I find endlessly fascinating.

The first, Jan Janszoon, may actually have started off as an opportunist; he was born in Haarlem, Holland, in the 17th century and was captain of a privateer which was captured by Barbary corsairs. The fact that he then "turned Turk", as the saying was, and became a corsair (and a Muslim) himself, may well initially have been pure self-preservation. But having started on a new course, he surely went the whole hog. Murat Reis, as he now called himself, was one of the most famous, and successful, people-traffickers there ever was, kidnapping Europeans on a grand scale to sell in the Tunis and Algiers slave-markets. He stole a villageful of 108 people from Baltimore in Ireland, he abducted 15 from Grindavik in Iceland; he even used Lundy Island as a base for a while. And he had more than one chance to go home to his Dutch wife and family, had he wanted, but he chose not to leave his new family and home, a castle by the shore of Salé.

And yet... it is never clear how much of his old personality remained intact; how much he could not leave behind. In old age, he had a visit from the grown daughter he'd left in Haarlem; they seem to have got on well. He flew the Barbary flag, except when attacking the ships of Holland's old enemy Spain; then he flew Dutch colours. And once he buttonholed an English diplomat in the street and sounded out the possibility of changing his nationality yet again, assuring the man "I was ever a Christian at heart" (unlikely, but with our Jan you can never tell).

I think Jan Janszoon became Murat Reis, and found his new persona suited him better. He didn't so much reject his old self, as find it incompatible with the new. But my other fancy in this line was even more radical, and his motives were purely those of a writer; he altered his back-story, and much else, to fit the character he wanted to be.

Tristan Jones was an adventurer, a talented writer and an extremely skilled and daring sailor. There were circumstances in his back-story that didn't, to his mind, fit this undoubted truth, so he rewrote them. His surname really was Jones, but to his given name of Arthur he preferred the sadder and more equivocal Arthurian hero Tristan. In his mythology, he was the son of the captain of a tramp steamer, which might even have been true, since he was born in Liverpool, but he had no way of knowing, having been born to an unmarried girl and brought up in orphanages. The place of birth was Walton Hospital, but he decided the man he was in the process of creating should have been born at sea (in a storm), so he made it so. Some adjustment was also needed to his date of birth, because 1929, the real date, would not have allowed him to serve in World War 2 as a boy seaman, so it became 1924. And this was only the start…

I admit to a huge degree of indulgence for Jones; I can't think of him without smiling. But it would, I think, be pedantic to class these as lies. In his mind, the mind above all of a novelist and storyteller, these were things that should have been true, and would have been, had not inconvenient reality got in the way. He may have claimed achievements he didn't actually accomplish; he never claimed one that he didn't have the talent to have accomplished, had circumstances been right. If he'd been five years older, or the war had obligingly happened five years later, he would have been a boy seaman; there's nothing more certain.

And this of course is the big difference between him and the would-be poet who has lately been in the news for passing off others' work, very lightly altered, as his own. I think it's possible that a serial plagiarist sees things in the same light as Jones did; he reads a poem he likes and thinks "I could have written that"; by and by he thinks he should have, and makes it so. But to judge by the minor alterations this person makes, inevitably for the worse, I see no evidence that these are poems he could have thought of all by himself, if only someone else hadn't got there first. Not, of course, that this would make it all right to go stealing the achievements of others (another thing Jones didn't do). Jones embroidered his own story; he never would have wanted to appropriate anyone else's, still less speak in their voice; it was his own that fascinated him, and that he wanted to perfect.

But then, Jones was a writer.
ext_1633048 on February 4th, 2013 03:04 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed the stories about Tristan Jones. Of course he must have been born at sea in a storm. I won't be able to think of him without smiling now either.

Sally M: historysallymn on February 5th, 2013 09:16 am (UTC)
No problem with folks who rewrite themselves, as long as they don't hurt others in the process. After all, who we are... is really set less in stone than in running water.

Tristan sounds wonderful :)
Sheenagh Pugh: sheenaghpugh on February 5th, 2013 09:47 am (UTC)
You have to love a man who begins a book with the sentence "My sixteenth transatlantic crossing under full sail was fairly uneventful, with the exception of glancing off a basking whale about six hundred miles to the east of Bermuda." - and titles it The Incredible Voyage....