THOSE OF YOU who regularly watch Brian Williams read the television news in the evening will know the meaning of self-aggrandizement. For those of you who don’t, let me just explain that Mr. Williams is temporarily off the air because he told a lie about being shot down in a helicopter while reporting from Iraq. His credibility has now been shot down with him.
But Mr. Williams is a total amateur compared with an author known to almost every yachtsman. A fellow called Tristan Jones had 18 books published about his alleged exploits on small boats, each new book sought after as eagerly as the previous one by his gullible band of admiring readers. Eighteen books, all packed with lies, deceptions, and self-glory. And he was never held to account for it before his death in 1995.
How did he get away with it? Shouldn’t his publishers have created a warning label: “Contains highly toxic material.” Shouldn’t the booksellers and distributors who connived in this giant deceit have borne some responsibility? Shouldn’t they apologize, as Mr. Williams did, and humiliate themselves for the short period it will take the fickle public to forget and forgive?
Oh, silly me. Tristan Jones was making money for them. Still is. Why should a few untruths deter them from their earnest worship at the altar of Mammon?
Anthony Dalton has written a biography of Tristan Jones called Wayward Sailor (International Marine). He explains quite a lot about Jones’s aversion to telling the truth, and perhaps Mr. Williams should read it. He could learn a lot about how to get away with it.
Meanwhile, I can’t do better by way of explanation than to quote Barbara Bogaev of HiLoBrow, an intellectual/cultural blog named by Time magazine as one of the best blogs of the year:
“THE TALES OF ADVENTURER, peg-legged seafarer, and advocate for the disabled TRISTAN JONES (1929-95) fill 18 books, most of which should be categorized as autobiographical fantasy. The astonishing part of his story is not that he lied so often and so brazenly, but that as much of what he claimed to have dared and accomplished in his life is actually true.
“He was the first to sail a foreign boat on Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world. He was the first to take a vessel across the width of South America, to sail in the Mato Grosso, and (after he had lost a leg to gangrene) to cross Europe in an oceangoing trimaran, from the North to the Black Sea.
“While these maritime records alone would qualify him as one of the great seadogs of modern times, when you figure in the raucous, epic quality of his prose, its magical Welsh lilt combined with an irascible lyricism reminiscent of wayfarers of a bygone era, Jones nearly lives up to his own promise: that he “would set a record that will not be broken until man finds water amongst the stars.”
“A longtime fan, I gave my daughter the middle name of Tristan, never suspecting that his lies permeated every aspect of his personal history — including his first name, which appears to have been Arthur. Or that rather than merely embellishing his tales of incredible voyages he plagiarized more than his share from sailors who came before him, or simply made them up out of a slurry of ocean spray and the fumes of dark rum.
“Ice, his account of being trapped in the frigid Arctic during his attempt to sail farther north than anyone else, is a pure fabrication, right down to Nelson, the one-eyed, three-legged dog who was Jones’ constant companion. Contrary to what he claimed, Jones most likely wasn’t born at sea, wasn’t in the Royal Navy during World War II, was never on a vessel blown up by guerrillas, was never tortured in Buenos Aires, wasn’t attacked by Arabs or rescued by Ethiopians. He probably wasn’t even Welsh.
“Instead, my daughter’s namesake appears to have been the wiry, tall-tale-spinning old salt with the wooden leg at the end of the bar, always the first to start a fight and the last to stagger out the door, who, somehow, shook off the hangover the next day to churn out enchanting, crystalline prose worthy of the Arctic ice he never saw in this lifetime, but imagined as vividly as he cursed his doubters, spurned defeat, and embraced his seagoing, flawed, unfailingly interesting life.”
There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual.
— Thomas Jefferson, Writings
“Tell me, Vicar, do you condone sex before marriage?”
“Not if it delays the ceremony.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)