Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
When you write a book about a man given to changing names and telling tales you should expect to be found out at some point. A man like that – a prolific storyteller who lived in and through masks and mirrors – makes it difficult to say anything with certainty.
Who are you? Where are you? How can I trust your word and that of those who wrote about you in newspaper reports and police files? Time and again the Prince of Tricksters draws attention to the shifting sands on which all historians work and write. Speculation, inference, guesswork, assumption – the might-have-been and the must-have-been – these are the stock-in-trade of historians of all stripes. The only difference is that some of us are more aware of our limits than others.
Do you think you can really know the past? There is nothing like a duplicitous trickster to expose the hubris of such confidence.
So when you write that book you should expect to be found out at some point. Still – I was not expecting to be found out, caught out, exposed and tricked, before Prince of Tricksters has even been published.
Revelation of the mistakes and misapprehensions that mark my account of your lies and lives has begun already Netley. Thanks for that.
This is what I said about you:
At the end of the Great War, he fraudulently claimed military rank. As a second conflict gathered force, he again evaded the responsibilities of patriotic citizenship. Lucas and Mavis left London just as the risk of air raids grew; he was cautioned for breaching the blackout regulations days before he died.
Do you not like how I have understood your hurried move to Surrey in summer 1940? Perhaps that is why you have shown how I got it wrong.
In the 1939 Register you appear in a different guise. On 29 September 1939, a hastily compiled census – a snapshot of a nation now once more at war – finds you in Anna Rich’s rambling apartment house in Eardley Crescent, a curving street of yellow-bricked Victorian terraces. I wonder what you made of this stolid respectability and the textiles manager, insurance inspector, and chartered accountant you must have nodded to on the stairs.
More to the point, I wonder what they made of you.
Because the name under which you introduced yourself was only one of many. And the name under which the census enumerators issued you with an identity card and ration card was not the same as the name on your birth certificate. A different name, of course – that is why it took me so long to find you in the tabulated columns of personal information. I should have expected that as well.
In a well-worn variation on a theme, Evelyn Lucas now took the place vacated by Netley Lucas, Evelyn Graham, Paul Evelyn, and more. Now your second wife introduced herself to the enumerator as Mavis Cox Lucas. Years later Cox – her maiden name – was crossed out in blue ink accompanied by a handwritten annotation dated 27 May 1947. It seems strange to me that Mavis should do this. By then you had been dead for seven years. Given how you treated her, surely Mavis should have been trying to shed all traces of your married life together rather than the other way round?
Another well-worn variation on a theme: you sold the census enumerator a grandiose story and bold claim. You were employed, he noted dutifully, as a Newspaper Editor. Mavis, in turn, was a journalist.
Yet still you can surprise me – and, in so doing, force me to acknowledge my mistakes and misapprehensions. Reserved for details of an individual’s national or military service, the final column of the tabulated National Register includes an entry against your name:
Found out, caught out, exposed and tricked – you got me Netley. And, perhaps, I got you wrong.
Let’s see what else you have in store.