Given the name of this blog, alert readers will be unsurprised that I have an especial interest in literary fakes, forgeries, hoaxes and deceptions. This may be because I read Borges at an impressionable age, or because I grew up in Scotland (at the heart of whose literature stands the triumph and embarrassment of “Ossian”), but whichever diagnosis, it means there is a shelf in the McShandy Library devoted to Ern Malley, George Psalmanazar, William-Henry Ireland, Konrad Kujau, Onomacritus and Alan Sokal.
But there’s a special class of honest fakes; the double-agents of the world of bookish duplicity. The titular champion of these loyal phonies was Lillian Mountweazel. Born in 1942 in Bangs, Ohio, she was a noted fountain designer before turning her hand to photography, producing an acclaimed series of often surprising images of rural American mailboxes, collected as Flags Up! She died in 1973, in an explosion, while working for Combustibles magazine. She appears in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopaedia and never existed. Her entry was included as a check to determine if the words of the encyclopaedia were being plagiarised, and the name for such “copyright traps” is now a mountweazel. Other examples include the musicologist who studied the facial hair of composer and synthesiser aficionado, the Turkish born Metaf Üsic (in the Swedish Sohlmans musiklexikon ); the non-existent composers Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup and Guglielmo Baldini in the 1980 New Grove Encyclopaedia of Music and Musicians (which also includes entries on the ear-flute and the life of Mary “Mother” Brown, 1550-1611, whose knees famously went up in the popular song); and the Bundestag website includes a biography of the politician Jakob Maria Mierscheid. The Bundestag has 614 representatives; Mierscheid is the 615th. Originally a name used by politicians to avoid paying bills in restaurants, he is long-standing deputy chairman of the Committee for Small and Medium Sized Businesses and hosted a conference on the ecological damage caused by stone-louses (the stone-louse, or Steinlaus, which appears in the Pschyrembel Klinisches Wörterbuch is another mountweazel). The Germans seems to have a particular aptitude for mountweazels, having invented “apopudobalia”, a classical Roman version of football and Gerolf Steiner,
under the pseudonym Harald Stümpke, wrote numerous works on a class of mammals called Rhinogradentia, whose noses had evolved into highly specialised organs. There was the Otopteryx, which used its nose as a rudder and flew backwards with its ears. They evolved in isolation on the Hiddudify Islands, later destroyed by atomic bomb testings.
Maps as well as encyclopaedias and dictionaries have similar fictitious entries; known as trap streets. The Geographer’s A-Z Street Atlas contains about 100 trap streets in London (sometimes just streets that bend or twist the wrong way; sometimes entire made-up thoroughfares. One, “Bartlett Place” has been detected). Esso and Rand McNally maps include the settlement of Agloe, New York, near Beaverkill, which used to be just the intersection of dirt-tracks until its celebrity as a trap street led to its becoming a real place. Likewise, the towns of Goblu and Beatosu in Ohio are unreal. Whether Argleton, Lancashire, is a copyright trap of not is in some dispute. Argleton was discovered by Mike Nolan and Roy Bayfield on Google Maps: but Nolan, who grew up in that part of the country, knew that where the phantom town should be was just a farmer’s field. The “unreality” of Argleton was enhanced by Google’s self-generated advertising links made it seem as if Argleton had various thriving businesses, and one enterprising individual began selling t-shirts with the slogan “I went to Argleton and all I got with this lousy t-shirt”.
These fakes are among the most melancholy: they get to “be” reality for longer than any other fakes; but the minute they are exposed, they must be admitted as jokes or errors. Their function has been compromised, so they evaporate, to be replaced by another deliberate fiction. I’d love to hear if anyone has any other examples: my own Book of Lost Books contains a reference to Rosier’s Encyclopaedia, which, of course, is the fake book in Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee – the book which disproved the existence of the universe.