SOME FACTS ABOUT ME
1. I’m a man.
2. I was one of ten children.
3. I spent twelve months of my life training to be a dentist.
4. For two years of my childhood, I insisted that I’d been abducted by aliens. The story was completely made up, and yet the more people reminded me of this fact, the more I insisted otherwise. It started as an innocent game, which developed into something more serious. It was probably a cry for attention directed at my inattentive parents. There were, inevitably, some children who believed my elaborate tales, and would ask me many questions, such as, “Did they perform experiments?” and “What did the aliens smell like?” It was as a result of these self-indulgent Q and A sessions that my lies were eventually exposed by the cross-examinations of an older cousin.
5. My name is Mark Greensleeves, and I am a liar.
The wonderful thing about that statement is that you have no way of telling whether it’s true or not. If I am, indeed, a liar, why should you believe what I say? But if I’m telling the truth, it’s a straightforward paradox.
There’s a reason why liars don’t form support groups.
6. I hate talking on the telephone. For one thing, I hate not being able to see the person that I’m speaking to.
You may think it’s easier to lie over the phone, as the person you are talking to can’t see your look of doubt. That’s not a problem for me. Deception is only easier over the phone if you’re not doing it properly.
But that isn’t the reason I hate the telephone. I often like to entertain the idea that the universe was created just for me and my own entertainment. Other people and other objects are just an illusion, and when they are not standing in the same room as me, they are no longer there.
Some people say technology is responsible for urban isolation and the destruction of communities. If only that were true. The fact of the matter is, as soon as you’re connected to a phone line, you’re a click away from every single person in the industrialised world.
So much for privacy.
7. When I was a child, I was watching Star Wars with my older cousin, when Han Solo used the catchphrase, “May The Force Be With You,” in a mocking tone.
“Is that man a goodie or a baddie?” I said.
“He’s more of a goodie-baddie,” said my cousin.
It’s been one of my favourite expressions ever since. My favourite characters from fiction are always the goodie-baddies. They’re always so much more complex and interesting than the standard figures of sympathy. Hamlet. 007. Judas.
8. I have no religious beliefs, but I find the idea of belief very interesting.
There is a man who stands on the corner of a street near my flat on Sunday afternoons preaching at the passers by that they are sinners who are yet to be saved. (Quite a judgmental attitude for a Christian, but I’ll let that slide.)
I once approached the preacher, and asked him, “How can you believe in something you can’t see?”
“Other people have seen, and written it down,” he said.
“Someone sat down and wrote the Mr Men books,” I said, “but it doesn’t make them Gospel.”
“I can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t have faith. It’s something that I feel. I’ve never seen God, but I’ve felt Him.”
“How do you know that what you felt was “God”? How do you know it wasn’t just a part of yourself? In that case, you’d just be lying to yourself, wouldn’t you?”
“If I’m lying to myself, then so be it. I’m happy with it.”
“Doesn’t God say that it’s wrong to lie?”
I walked away, laughing.
9. And then there’s disbelief. What is it that causes people to disbelieve something that can’t be proven either way?
Suspension of disbelief is the process by which a person will listen to something they know not to be true, and yet disregard its falseness in order to feel sympathy for fictional characters, and process the emotional impact of imagined events.
Some suggest suspension of disbelief works because even though the fictions we are witnessing are indeed artificial, they also contain fundamental human truths.
I think there’s more to it than that. In my view, the best fiction writers are the ones who push back the boundaries of believability, and allow us, for a short amount of time at least, to believe the unbelievable.
10. When I was seven years old, I was abducted by aliens.
It happened in my back yard one afternoon in June, when no one was around.
The aliens were very civil towards me. They took me into their space ship, which was invisible from the exterior, but once inside I was met by a lavish array of furnishings.
The aliens were purple, and smelt of vinegar.
They performed experiments on me, but only after receiving my consent. I was assured throughout the whole process that no harm would come to me, either physically or psychologically.
They also offered to erase my memory of the event, which I declined, only after some consideration.
In years to come, with hours spent trying to convince friends and relatives of what had happened, I would often regret not taking the other option. Things would have been easier that way.
11. My falsehoods are all my own work. I don’t steal other people’s ideas and pass them off as my own. Many people carry out this practise, and don’t even regard it as deception.
My father had a favourite Mail on Sunday columnist who he used to plagiarise at length once a week around the crowded dinner table. The one thing my family agreed on was the quality of my mother’s roast dinners, and therefore, on these occasions we were all too engrossed in our meals to be deterred by the old man’s reactionary drivel.
Later, when he wasn’t looking, I would dig the paper out from its perch and examine how accurately his distillation of the opinion piece had been. Often, certain words and phrases were underlined or circled. Once, he even managed to recite the whole thing verbatim.
There is nothing worse than a bad liar.
12. I hate being lied to. I can’t stand it, especially when it’s a lie that I’ve fallen for.
Some people might call me a hypocrite.
13. I can’t stand it when someone doesn’t believe me, especially when I’m lying. I’m sure that all the great actors are plagued by similar irritations.
Some people might call that self-doubt.
Luckily, for most of the time, I believe in myself, and I would like to think that others do too, at least for most of the time.
14. Sometimes, I like to pretend that my parents had ten children, but in actual fact, they only had three. We lived with seven of our cousins, who my parents also looked after, following an accident that killed my aunt. I was too young to remember them coming to live with us, and to be honest, there are very few things that I do remember about growing up. Sometimes stories that I’ve used to mythologize my childhood resurface in my mind as actual memories. It makes me wonder what are memories anyway, but thoughts in a person’s head distorted by time and embellishment?
Perhaps if you tell a story enough times, it will become the truth.
15. There is one memory that returns to me with alarming regularity:
Lying in bed with Charlie. The setting sun was visible through the crack in the curtains, or so I imagine in hindsight.
“What are you thinking about?” she said.
What I was actually doing was perfecting some of the details of a story I was working on about myself. I was going to start telling people I spent twelve months training to be a dentist.
I couldn’t tell her the story yet. I hadn’t quite worked it all out.
Still, there’s something about nakedness that goes hand in hand with honesty. It demonstrates that you have nothing to hide, and will share your thoughts as happily as you’ve shared your body. You’ll never meet a dishonest naturist.
So instead, I said, “What?”
“What are you thinking about?”
16. My cousin once told us a riddle about two brothers guarding the gates to Heaven and Hell. It is not clear which gate is which. One brother can only tell the truth, and the other can only tell lies. The riddle was this: if you only had one question to ask one of the brothers in order to ensure that you passed through the gates of Heaven, what would the question be?
“I know, I know!” I shouted out.
“Be quiet then,” said my cousin. “Don’t spoil it. Let the others guess.”
I was lying. I had no idea what the answer was, and although my cousin told me, I can no longer remember it.
17. Deep down, I am passionate in my opposition to animal cruelty and intensive farming methods. I am not a vegetarian.
I am equally passionate in my opposition to the agents of climate change. I’ll happily fly short-haul, and don’t recycle.
I am strongly opposed to the treatment of workers in developing countries who are exploited by the wealthy, first world corporations who employ them. I have never boycotted any of their products, or criticised anyone else for doing the same.
This does not mean I’m apathetic about any of these issues. I am simply aware of the fact that one man’s living habits will make absolutely no difference to the wider world.
I’m not being pessimistic. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s a fact, and if you give me a pen and paper I’ll prove it. It’s simple mathematics.
In order to make a difference, you need to get together with large groups of people who feel the same way as you.
Unfortunately, I don’t like groups.
I don’t fit into groups.
Groups and me don’t mix.
It’s hard enough dealing with people on a one to one basis.
18. Charlie was my longest relationship. She lasted three months. During that time, I was happier than I have ever been.
I also told more lies during those three months than I’d probably told in the previous three years.
I invented an entire life for myself. I was an only child. I was exceptionally gifted academically, which meant that I had to be moved two years ahead in school, partly for my own benefit, but it was also felt that my intelligence was putting the other children off. I excelled even in these higher years, which again did not win me any friends, so my parents took me out of education altogether in order to teach me at home. My father was a noted science professor and environmental campaigner who turned down a research post at Oxford in order to dedicate his time to me. I would have liked to have said that he taught me everything I knew, but this would be misleading. My father taught me how to learn, which is something I never received at school.
When he died, me and my mother were by his side. His final words to me were: “I hope that when it is you who is lying here, and your loving wife and son are sitting by your side, you will have been able to say that you’ve had as few regrets as I’ve had.”
There were many other stories, too numerous to mention here. Many of them were based on existing lies I’d told a thousand times before, but in order for them all to fit together I had to construct a thousand other lies to fill in the gaps. The whole process was exhausting. When it finished, I imagined that I missed Charlie, but really I missed the part I was playing. This was particularly tragic for me, because I knew that I could never play that role again, not properly anyway. The role you play has to suit the audience you’re playing it to. I tailor-made every detail to match Charlie’s idea of what her perfect partner should be. Or, at least, that was my perception of it.
In the end, I was caught out by a simple lie. A basic mistake that I couldn’t simply invent a new story to cover up for.
She found out my real name.
19. My Mum forgot my name once.
I’ve heard people talk about this phenomenon in affectionate terms before. Your mother will accidentally call you by the name of one of your siblings and then correct herself. Sometimes she’ll go through a whole list of names before she gets to yours. That’s not what happened with me. My Mum actually forgot my name.
It happened when I was a teenager. She was driving me to the cash and carry because she wanted me to lift some boxes.
“Fasten your seatbelt, er…” she said.
“Fasten your seatbelt what?” I said.
My Mum put her fingers to her lips. “Fasten your seatbelt please?” she said.
I looked at her, testily. “What’s my name?”
My Mum gave a nervous giggle. “What kind of question is that?”
“I’m not fastening my seatbelt until you tell me my name,” I said.
My Mum shifted in her seat, seemingly not sure whether to tell me off for answering back or admit defeat.
“It’s on the tip of my tongue,” she said.
I fastened my seatbelt. “Forget about it,” I said.
“You’re not going to remind me?” she said.
“It’s not important,” I said.
We drove to the cash and carry in silence. My Mum turned up the radio in a bid to ease the tension.
Six weeks later, we were eating Sunday dinner. My Dad was in the middle of one of his lectures.
“Could you pass the gravy, Mark?” my Mum whispered to me.
I didn’t say anything. I just passed her the gravy.
People say that I make some of these stories up about my childhood, and they’re right, I do. But I didn’t make this one up. Believe it or not, this really happened.
20. When I was eight years old, I was suspended from school for continually insisting that I’d been abducted by aliens. The suspension came about as a result of a heated argument between myself and my class teacher. While my teacher repeatedly ordered me not to “tell tales,” I insisted that it was my duty to impart knowledge that happened to be true – an obligation shared by the institution we belonged to.
My parents were advised to send me to a child psychologist – an offer they declined on the grounds that I was only doing it for attention. At the time, I respected their decision. They must have known what they were talking about, because they were grownups.
Now that I’m a grownup myself, I would still be inclined to agree with them.
After all, it’s not as though I was making the story up.
21. In certain selected circles, I used to pretend that I spent school breaktimes selling my stash of duty-free cigarettes to fellow pupils, in exchange for answers to homework questions, or favours such as getting an enemy beaten up. In this scenario, I went to an inner-city comprehensive, and my parents were unemployed. Nonetheless, they were the best parents I could ever have wished for, and it was only their tireless perseverance that kept me from pursuing a life of crime.
22. In other circles, I’ve painted myself as having been a great athlete, who would sweep the board at sports days, and was in the Chelsea under-14s. I could’ve gone professional later in life if I hadn’t jumped in front of a speeding truck to save a young girl’s life. I broke both my legs and arms, but to this day, I’ve maintained that the injuries were worth it. The girl was fine, and went on to play a long-standing role in the television soap opera, Coronation Street.
In this version of events, I was a middle class grammar school boy. Although my parents had money, I was never spoiled, and I was always taught to care for those less well off than myself.
23. The truth is, my school life was largely unremarkable. I had a handful of friends, and we kept out of trouble. We were neither a cause for concern, nor a shining example. We were just normal people trying to get through the difficult years without undergoing the embarrassment of standing out.
At breaktimes we used to hang out in the library. This was not due to any of us being academically gifted. It was just a place to go.
One lunchtime, a group of us were sitting round a table, playing coin football, just passing the time.
My friend Luke turned to me and said, “Did you know, the word gullible isn’t in the dictionary?”
“Why isn’t it?” I said.
“It just isn’t. It’s just a fact that I know.”
“Look it up if you don’t believe me.”
I went over to the shelves and pulled down the biggest dictionary I could find.
“You liar,” I said, “it’s right here!”
I turned around to show them, only to be met by a chorus of chuckling faces.
“Yeah, why don’t you read what it says?” said Luke. “It’s you: Mark-Greenie-Greensleeves.”
That was the last time I ever fell for a joke like that. Now I’m constantly on my guard.
Every day is April 1stas far as I’m concerned.
24. The last time I spoke to Charlie was on the telephone.
“Why?” she was saying to me. “Why didn’t you just tell me? What’s so shameful about your real name that you can’t share it?”
“There’s nothing shameful about it. I just call myself Mark Greensleeves. I prefer it.”
“Is that what your parents called you?”
“Is that what people called you at school?”
“So why did you tell me that story?”
“You don’t even remember. You told me kids in the playground used to tease you about your name. They called you “Greenie,” and “Snotty,” and “The Bogeyman”. I felt sorry for you. Is that what you wanted?”
“I know it was wrong. But it’s such a small thing. Such a little lie. What does it matter what my real name is? I never meant to hurt you.”
“Well, you have, Mark. Or whatever your name is.”
“I’ve never told a malicious lie in my life. I may tell the odd white one for my own amusement, or to make myself look a bit more interesting. But I would never deliberately hurt anyone.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You have to believe me.”
“I can never believe anything you tell me again.”
“But I’m actually telling the truth.”
“Could you promise me you’ll never lie to me again?”
“Honestly? No, I can’t promise that. I can promise that I’ll never intentionally hurt you by lying.”
“I know it is. This is the person that I am. But you have to understand that I’m not bad.”
“I don’t think you’re bad, Mark. I just can’t do this anymore.”
“Look,” I said, “all I wanted – all I’ve ever wanted …”
“Have a good life, Mark.”
“Look, just listen to me. All I’ve ever wanted is for someone to listen to me. Just listen to what I have to say. You don’t have to believe me, and you don’t have to love me. I just want you to listen …”
The line went dead.
25. If I could offer one piece of advice to anyone thinking of taking up lying seriously, it is this: if you want to be a good liar, it’s necessary for you to believe the lie yourself. As long as you believe the lie yourself, then no matter how bizarre or outlandish it happens to be, other people will believe it too. Not everyone will believe it, of course. People have their own minds, and you are not a miracle worker.
Some people don’t believe the truth either. Some people are idiots.
For a lie to work for me, it has to contain some element of truth. It wouldn’t work otherwise, because I wouldn’t believe it myself.
That day in June when I was seven, I was standing in the back yard on my own, when a low-flying aircraft passed overhead. It was only a small plane, but to a small child it might as well have been a jumbo jet, and it was flying so low, I almost thought it was going to crash into the house.
I ducked my head.
When I dared to look up again, the plane was already heading into the distance.
As I stood there, slightly shaken by the experience, I began to consider what might have happened if the plane had been flying lower.
As I stood there some more, I imagined what would have happened if the plane wasn’t a plane at all.
There was no one there to say that it was a plane, or it wasn’t a plane.
There was just me, standing on my own, and when you’re standing on your own, anything is possible.
That may have been the greatest moment of my life. No other people to tell me I was wrong. Just me, and a world of possibility.
I can’t remember all the details now, but whenever I picture it, the sun is shining, and there are no clouds, just the faintest streak of white that slowly fades as I make my plans.
It’s a beautiful day.
© Frank Burton 2009