Book Title: Lies That Blind
Author: E.S. Alexander
Publication Date: 19th October 2021
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Page Length: 304 Pages
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What would you risk to avoid obscurity?
Aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd jeopardises his future in ways he never could have imagined. He risks his wealthy father’s wrath to ride the coat-tails of Captain Francis Light, an adventurer governing the East India Company’s new trading settlement on Penang. Once arrived on the island, Jim—as Light’s assistant—hopes that chronicling his employer’s achievements will propel them both to enduring fame. But the naïve young man soon discovers that years of deception and double-dealing have strained relations between Light and Penang’s legal owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, almost to the point of war. Tensions mount: Pirate activity escalates, traders complain about Light’s monopolies, and inhabitants threaten to flee, fearing a battle the fledgling settlement cannot hope to win against the Malays. Jim realises that a shared obsession with renown has brought him and Light perilously close to infamy: a fate the younger man, at least, fears more than death. Yet Jim will not leave Penang because of his dedication to Light’s young son, William, and his perplexing attraction to a mercurial Dutchman. He must stay and confront his own misguided ambitions as well as help save the legacy of a man he has come to despise.
Inspired by true events, Lies That Blind is a story featuring historical character Francis Light (1740-1794) who, in an effort to defy his mortality, was seemingly willing to put the lives and livelihoods of a thousand souls on Penang at risk.
“Fake News” – 18th century style
(November 1788: Protagonist, Jim Lloyd, meets an old friend for lunch at Fort William, the East India Company’s headquarters in Calcutta.)
“So, climbing up the greasy pole of the East India Company hierarchy disnae sound as if it suits ye, Jimmy. What fires up yer passion, then?” my Scottish friend Roxburgh asked as he crunched his way through a bowl of pistachios.
As breathless as a besotted suitor I gushed, “I desire to be a journalist, having long admired James Boswell whose The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson has been published to great acclaim. It is very much the kind of intimate conversation with an interesting subject that I would like to write.” I glanced shyly at my friend, who had a strange look on his face. “What is it?”
My friend lubricated his larynx with more arrack before speaking. “I dinnae know much aboot Boswell’s work—although his private life disnae impress me and he comes across as a very gossipy, indiscreet sort—but I gather many of today’s journalists are dubious fellows.”
“Really? What makes you say that?”
“The last time I was in London I lunched at The Turks Head Inn in Soho. One of the guests in attendance was a gentleman called Mr. John Nichols.”
“I have heard of him,” I interjected. “He is the editor of the prestigious The Gentleman’s Magazine, a man much admired in literary circles.”
“Aye, well,” began Roxburgh. “Mr. Nichols told this rather amusing tale pertaining to the Americans’ General George Washington. He had earlier been at pains tae point out how many blackguard writers loiter around coffee shops and alehouses picking up pieces of tittle-tattle that they present in a credible way to a gullible public. The ease of which is all the greater when tales originate from abroad. That acclaimed editor had, surprisingly, very little good tae say about most men who pursue journalism so ye might not wish tae risk yer reputation by entering such a murky occupation, young Jim.”
My curiosity piqued as to what gossip might have been shared about General Washington, I ignored Roxburgh’s disdain for journalism and asked, “What prompted such a conversation about the Americans’ Commander-in-Chief?”
My Scottish companion leaned closer. “Mr. Nicolsbegan by drawingoor attention to an essay written some thirty years ago by Dr Johnson entitled Of the Duty of a Journalist, in which the great man pointed oot the importance of establishing facts before—as he put it, ‘slaughtering armies without battles, and conquering countries without invasions’.”
My friend shook his head and chuckled, then warmed his throat with another swig of arrack. “But let me test you as Mr. Nichols did to oor party that day.”
Convinced that I could best any challenge, I said confidently, “Go ahead.”
“There appeared an article in the April 1783 issue of the Rambler’s Magazine entitled ‘A remarkable discovery; or, Mrs. General Washington, displayed in proper articles’, the writer claiming that the former Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, was really a woman. The accompanying illustration showed Washington attired in a dress,” began Roxburgh. “This assertion was apparently supported by an admission made by General Washington’s late wife, Martha, reported in the Pennsylvania Gazette some months earlier.”
My face must have given away my shock at this revelation, but Roxburgh only smiled and carried on.
“Let us further examine the veracity of that report,” he began. “According to Mr. Nichols, a copy of the Whitehall Evening Post of the 25th of January 1783 reported that Mrs. Martha Washington before dying confessed to her chaplain that she had long known of her husband’s true sex but had agreed to the deception because of ‘motives of the most refined friendship’. The writer mentioned having gathered this information from the Dublin Register which, in turn, received the news from that issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette printed on 11th November the previous year.
“What, then, would be your verdict on General Washington’s true nature, young Jim?” my friend asked.
I admitted that as improbable as it seemed there appeared to be considerable proof, since three separate newspapers had reported the story, that the former leader of the Continental Army was indeed a woman in disguise. The written word, so confidently presented, was surely sacrosanct. And how many times had we heard stories of women disguising themselves as men to enjoy the freedom of adventure?
“Then you are convinced?”
With a hesitant nod, suspecting a trick, I mumbled, “Yes.”
“Yet the story about General Washington being a woman is false,” declared Roxburgh, rather too smugly for my liking. “For Mrs. Martha Washington still lives and never made such pronouncements. According to Mr. Nichols, the Pennsylvania Gazette appeared on the 6th and 13th of November that year, not the 11th, and there is no such publication as the Dublin Register.”
I slumped back in my chair, annoyed at not having asserted my misgivings no matter how many newspapers had repeated this untrue tale.
“Most journalists today appear tae be an unscrupulous lot who would sell their grandmothers for a juicy story, and I am surprised that you, young Jim, would wish to be counted among them,” said Roxburgh, wiping his mouth and throwing the cotton napkin on the table as if in disgust. Roxburgh’s frequent use of the word “young” in front of my name had begun to sound condemnatory.
Perhaps aware of my souring mood, Roxburgh leaned across the table and gave me a kindly smile. “Answer me this: Are you a man of independent means who can carve his own path without the support of others, namely yer faither?”
“Have you come to the attention of a wealthy benefactor?”
“Do you have an established body of workwith which tae attract such a benefactor?”
I slumped in my chair like a sagging pudding that had been removed too early from the oven. “No.”
My Scottish friend sighed and looked at me with pity. “In that case, yer options appear limited, dear boy.”
I shrugged my shoulders, accepting the truth of this. “So, where does that leave me?” I asked, forlornly.
Roxburgh extended an arm across the table and patted me on the hand in the manner of a father who, having refused the wishes of a child, now felt bad about it. “Be patient, laddie. Make influential connections here, then look for ways in which tae find financial support for your writing aspirations. Perhaps someone ye meet will wish their biography tae be written.” He raised his glass as if toasting a new thought. “Maybe Lord Cornwallis whose unfortunate reputation has followed him from America will wish his story tae be cast in a more favourable light. He might welcome some positive propaganda.” At this, my friend gave a hearty laugh.
“But that could take years.” The whine of my voice appalled me.
“Be practical, young Jim. There is no need to give up on yer dream of writing, but neither should ye over-indulge yer fantasies by believing you can make a living from it given the present reality. D’ye understand what ahm saying?”
I did, of course. But I did not like it one little bit. He was telling me to be content where I was, toiling at work I hated, in a place from which I wished to escape every day. For someone whom I had imagined would cheer me up, Roxburgh’s lecture only served to plunge me into a deeper melancholy.
“One further point to think on,” said my friend, rising from the table with a groan. “It is easy enough to say you desire to be this or that in life, but a wise man first discovers what a particular position or role might entail beyond what he imagines it to be. Indeed, what it might require him to become.”
E.S. Alexander was born in St. Andrews, Scotland in 1954, although her family moved to England a few years later. Her earliest memories include producing a newspaper with the John Bull printing set she was given one Christmas. She wrote and directed her first play, Osiris, at age 16, performed to an audience of parents, teachers, and pupils by the Lower Fifth Drama Society at her school in Bolton, Lancashire. Early on in her writing career, Liz wrote several short stories featuring ‘The Dover Street Sleuth’, Dixon Hawke for a D.C. Thomson newspaper in Scotland. Several of her (undoubtedly cringe-worthy) teenage poems were published in An Anthology of Verse.
Liz combined several decades as a freelance journalist writing for UK magazines and newspapers ranging from British Airway’s Business Life and the Daily Mail, to Marie Claire and Supply Chain Management magazine, with a brief stint as a presenter/reporter for various radio stations and television channels, including the BBC. In 2001 she moved to the United States where she earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in educational psychology from The University of Texas at Austin.
She has written and co-authored 17 internationally published, award-winning non-fiction books that have been translated into more than 20 languages.
In 2017, Liz relocated to Malaysia. She lives in Tanjung Bungah, Pulau Pinang where she was inspired to embark on one of the few forms of writing left for her to tackle: the novel.
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