Aiding and Abetting
Certain kinds of inquiry are born and bred for the Internet: the creepy, the supernatural, the unidentified flying, the bizarrely sexual, the CIA-involved. The kinds of people who seek information on these things, or who seek to share the fine print of their expertise, are people who used to subscribe to weird magazines, used to meet in pool bars or in fields on weekends, and who can now be found in Inter-net chat-rooms at three o’clock in the morning. It is becoming possible to understand these groups as new international tribes: the People of the Grassy Knoll, the Clan Roswell, the Global Fraternity of Boys Who Love Pamela Anderson, the Elvises, the Hitlers, the Worldwide Believers in the Sanctity of the Meteorite. Every classroom in the New World used to have one or two of these types; every mall had a dozen or so; but now, thanks to the glories of the World Wide Web, these odd twos and dozens can link hands across time zones and space, making of each contingent, from Dundee, Scotland, to Delmar, Iowa, a brotherhood of cranks the size of Katmandu.
One of these Internet tribes is desperate for sightings of the nanny-killing peer Lord Lucan, not seen since 1974, but is also keen to hear from those who have spotted Elvis, Hitler, “and such like.” Happily, there have already been several responses. One citizen swears the seventh Earl is now called Jeff and married to a landlady; another, somewhat excitedly, testifies to having seen Lucan “paragliding off Mooloolaba Beach, Queensland, Australia.” Never before in the history of nonsense has there been such a wonderful proliferation of fictions masquerading as facts. The new Internet tribes are obsessed, indeed, with the exploitation of myths in the absence of data, which leads me, for the first and last time in my life, to think of the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who, in another context, offered that a myth “is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another.” Hello Internet, where the cult of the unknown, the instant drama of the unknowable, involves millions of people in a mindless, borderless, night-and-day transportation of sensational lies.
In her memoir Curriculum Vitae, Muriel Spark lets it be known that “truth by itself is neutral and has its own dear beauty.” At 9:45 on the night of November 7, 1974, an injured woman burst into the Plumber’s Arms, a pub in Lower Belgrave Street, London, and cried out that she had just escaped being murdered. “Help, Help,” she screamed, “he’s in the house. He’s murdered the nanny!” He, it turned out, was Lord Lucan, the woman’s husband, an old Etonian, a gadfly and gambler, who was at the time separated from his wife and their three children, and very deep in debt. Lucan has never been seen again since that night. Sandra Rivett, the nanny, had been bashed several times on the head with lead piping, and her dead …