Social mobility and self-invention in the pre-digital age.
Thanks to the Internet, we will find it ever more difficult to escape our pasts. The reckless enthusiasms of youth, the misjudged moment, captured in full digital reality, never to be forgotten or explained away, may be borne long into maturity.
One loss is the ability to create the self anew, shaped according to one’s ambitions rather than one’s past. Take the founder of History Today, Brendan Bracken. The rebellious son of an Irish Republican, after a series of picaresque adventures in Australia he turned up at Sedbergh School, almost 20 but claiming to be a 15-year-old orphan. The head probably didn’t believe him, but took him on anyway. There was little oversight in those pre-digital days and so began a career that would see him become Churchill’s ‘faithful chela’ and, after 1945, the creator of the Financial Times, publisher of the Economist, as well as co-founder of History Today.
During the upheavals of the first half of the 20th century, many young people lucky enough to survive its hardships were able to recreate themselves, in new countries, in new languages. The social mobility and self-invention born of tragedy allowed ‘imposters’ to make their mark, often to the benefit of us all.
There was even less oversight in the 18th century, when one George Psalmanazar, born in France, travelled through the Continent before beguiling England’s great and good (who seem susceptible to fantasists). He took his name from the biblical Assyrian king, Shalmaneser, claimed he was from Formosa (now Taiwan) and even went so far as to construct his own language, on which he lectured at Oxford and before the grandees of the Royal Society. Edmond Halley called him out, but few others. He eventually came clean about his elaborate hoaxes, forging a friendship with Samuel Johnson, with whom he worked on Grub Street, where he was also acquainted with Richardson, Smollett and Swift. The public, however, preferred the fraud to the reality and he disappeared from view. No one ever did find out his real name.