Liar, liar, pants on fire!

I don’t know why human parents waste time telling their children to speak the truth. In my experience, human kiddies fib their little heads off as soon as they realise they can get away with it. Telling them that lying is wrong is perhaps more sensible, as it’s easier to catch them out if they feel guilty when they’re doing it.

I remember a little fellow called Emilio, who used to pay us regular visits when the circus was performing in Mexico City. He would offer to shine shoes for a few pesos and flattered his clients outrageously in the hope of a generous tip.

“Oh Senor!” he said to the ringmaster. “You have the moustache of a revolucionario, like Pancho Villa or Zapata.”

The ringmaster – bloated arse that he was – chortled away and handed the little chap a crisp banknote without asking for change.

Noticing that I was barefoot, Emilio put away his shoe-brush and appealed directly to my charitable instincts. “Please spare some pesos for a poor orphan boy, Senor Gorilla,” he pleaded pitifully. “I need money to buy milk for my three little sisters in the colonias.”

Although I suspected him of embellishing the facts to gain sympathy, I handed over a few pesos. I’m not the sort of ape to deny an orphan his due. All the same, I made a few discreet enquiries about his background after he had left. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that the crafty little tyke lived in a fine home with parents who could afford to send him to the American school, which explained his command of English.

The next time he came round, I invited him into my trailer for some lemonade and addressed him as follows:

“Young man, you have deceived me! You are not an orphan, but have worthy parents who attend to all of your needs. Having solicited funds through fraud you must accompany me to the police station. Confess all and the judge may be lenient!”

Emilio grovelled before me in abject contrition. “Please do not take me to the police!” he begged, this time shedding real tears. “Senor Gorilla, they are not like the police in England! They will put beetles in my hair and feed me the chicken’s ass!”

He may well have been exaggerating, but as I had no real desire to go to the police I offered a compromise. “Very well then,” I said. “I will inform your parents instead.”

His mood changed abruptly from despair to sullen resentment. “Why must you cluck like a hen laying an egg?” he inquired testily. “I will give you 50 pesos to be silent.”

I wasn’t going to tolerate cheek like that after I’d spared him from the dungeons of the Aztec capital. “You dare to offer me a bribe!” I thundered, picking up my diary. “I am making an appointment to see your parents next week. If you are wise you will confess to them beforehand. Now away with you!”

I don’t know whether he did confess because I never did visit his parents, but I imagine that I’d taught him a good lesson.

Although the lying human is usually up to no good, it would be simple-minded to suppose that the human talent for deception can never be put to good use. Lies, in fact, are an essential weapon against the merciless despot who cannot be resisted in any other way. A good historical example is the Emperor Caligula. It was quite clear the fellow went completely bonkers when he declared himself a god and made it a capital offence to utter the word “goat” in any context. Let’s suppose that a naive Senator had walked up to Caligula and said:

“Caesar, you’ve been behaving very strangely lately. For the good of the Empire, you should abdicate and get your head examined by one of those Greek doctors.”

This truthful and friendly piece of advice would have resulted in the Senator being chopped into bite-sized morsels by the Emperor’s German bodyguards and fed to the fish in the Tiber. And if Caligula had thought the Senator’s sentiments were widely shared, a massive cull of the Roman nobility would have followed. Telling the truth simply does not work in situations like that.

The correct tactic, which ultimately led to a successful assassination, was to lull the madman into a false sense of security by pretending to worship him. The Senate and People of Rome buttered him up with remarks such as:

“Oh Caesar, we mortals are unworthy to smell your poo!”

“Those gods on Mount Olympus must be so envious of you!”

“That horse of yours was the best Consul Rome ever had!”

As a result of being toadied to like this, Caligula got careless. He allowed himself to be separated from his German goon squad and was hacked to death outside the amphitheatre.

So what should parents be telling their children about lying? I think it should be something like this:

Lying is wrong unless the person you are deceiving is an absolute bounder, in which case it may be a necessary evil, but don’t make a habit of it.

There’s no point patronising children by over-simplifying a complex reality.

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