Friday 23 February 2007

The Man Who Reinvented Himself

I read Ice!
by Tristan Jones many years ago and enjoyed it immensely, I saw Jones as the epitome of the crusty old sea dog, even if I did have some misgivings about his domineering nature and even if some anecdotes were almost too rounded and other statements slightly too sweeping.

The punchy, salty language, powerful and poetic at times, the descriptions of the sea especially in its livelier moods and the craftsmanship with which he wove his yarns captured my imagination.

In Ice! Jones recounts how he left England in 1959 and set out to make the furthest north by a single-handed yachtsman. Travelling with a 3 legged one-eyed labrador, "Nelson" for company he rounds the west of Ireland in foul weather and heads for Iceland.

But on the way, while raising the main sail, the peak halyard block breaks and the gaff crashes down on him. When he comes-to there’s blood all over the deck and his eye is hanging out. He takes it between his fingers and shoves it back into its socket, then sews up the cut in his eyebrow with fishing line, finishing up with a round turn and two half-hitches.

I remember being enthralled, devouring page after page I eagerly followed Jones and "Nelson" on the first single-handed circumnavigation of Iceland and then on to Greenland and the Artic winter.

Jones gets trapped in the Artic ice and has to fight for his life against a hungry polar bear. He eventually fires a flare into the beast’s gaping maw and drives it away. The next year is spent in solitude stuck in the ice as Jones hopes that the drifting pack will take him to the highest latitude achieved by a solo-manned craft. But his boat "Cresswell" is nearly crushed by a collapsing iceberg. And so the breath taking adventures continue: but with one flaw—they are not autobiographical fact as Jones claimed, but fiction.

Anthony Dalton revealed the fraud behind Jones’ books in 2003 with his biography The Wayward Sailor. A fan of Jones’ Dalton embarked on the routine research for the biography in 1999, he interviewed acquaintances, dug up logbooks and records and travelled to many of the places that Jones had supposedly been. But the research didn’t add up, records didn’t tally with events and what had started as a straightforward biography became an odyssey for Dalton as he tried to uncover the truth behind Tristan Jones.

The real story is also a fascinating one. Whereas the Tristan Jones of the stories was born on his father’s tramp steamer somewhere off Tristan da Cunha, Arthur Jones was born illegitimately to a working class girl in Lancashire. He joined the royal navy in 1946, too late to see the World War 2 action that he so graphically recreates in the books. Out of the navy after an unremarkable career he smuggled whisky across the channel before drifting to, what was then, the Mediterranean backwater of Ibiza. Here he earned himself a hard drinker’s label and a handful of scars.

Down on his luck and facing an uninspiring future he decided to invent a past for himself that would put his name in the record books. He shut himself away and wrote six supposedly autobiographical accounts in three years, with an accomplished prose style that won him scores of fans and pots of money.

His left leg was amputated in the early 80’s but he continued trying to live the life he had invented. Then after a second amputation he settled in Thailand. Increasingly bitter he died in 1995.

Knowing the story of Jones makes his books slightly less compelling, whereas before his bravery and audacity in the face of danger had me turning the pages, now I turn the same pages, albeit rather more slowly, for the choice lines and descriptions. Lines like “After nine pints and two orgasms we returned to the boat.” Or, talking about how his boat Cresswell, an ex RNLI craft, handles bad weather, “The old girl is as happy as a pig in shit out there. She’s a cow in breezes or light winds, but, Jesus, she’ll wear out the hammers of hell in blow.”

The invented Jones is as salty as they come.

Here’s an interesting story from Ron Riel who sold Jones Sea Dart, the boat that would feature in most of the adventures.

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