Robert Peters, né Parkins, wasn’t much to look at. He was ‘a little man with a stiff back who walked like a penguin’. Photographs show him as steeply balding, with a rice puddingy face that glooped onto his dog collar. He was tubby, and got tubbier. But something about him made a certain kind of woman sit up. At the Institute of Historical Research in the 1950s, ‘the automatic doors of the Senate House lift used to open to reveal him in a clinch with one of the secretaries,’ one acquaintance remembered, adding: ‘perhaps [they were] “wife” or “wives” to be.’ Peters was married probably seven times, mostly bigamously. One wife he left on a train, not by accident. He was catnip to the tabloids and in 1959 they caught a whiff of him. He was discovered to have inveigled his way into Oxford as a postgraduate in history, on the basis of a degree he didn’t have, claiming to be ten years younger than he was, and a licensed clergyman, which he wasn’t. There was also the fact of the wives: only four at that point. Preparing to leave the country for a fresh start, not for the first time and not for the last, Peters né Parkins gave an interview to the Sunday Pictorial: ‘My wild days are over,’ he said. ‘Yet my only wish has been to serve God and be recognised academically … I have left behind three former wives – but take with me the only woman I have ever loved.’
Robert Parkins was born in 1918 and died as Robert Peters in 2005. He spent a long lifetime pretending to be someone and something he wasn’t, the first pretence usually leading to the second. It was during Peters’s short-lived, ill-fated Oxford phase (all his phases were short-lived and ill-fated) that he encountered Hugh Trevor-Roper, then Regius Professor of Modern History, who kept a dossier on his activities for the next 25 years. Adam Sisman, Trevor-Roper’s biographer, has now used the dossier as the foundation for a short, spry book, The Professor and the Parson (Profile, £12.99). He doubtless felt encouraged, perhaps foredoomed, by letters Trevor-Roper received from well-wishers in the years of his pursuit: ‘Surely the thing will be published one day!’ the historian Joel Hurstfield wrote in 1959. ‘It will make far more interesting reading than The Quest for Corvo.’ In the late 1970s, Richard Cobb took the view that Peters merited ‘further study, perhaps even a short biography, as he is fairly outstanding both as an academic fraud and as a bigamist’. To complain that the account we have at last been given is somewhat unrelenting, that the outstanding Peters just keeps going and going and going, seems churlish; to quote Trevor-Roper in another context, it is like asking ‘a jellyfish to grit its teeth and dig in its heels’. But that is how it is. Not that – suitably abbreviated – it isn’t a remarkable story, in its way. Peters, still at that point Parkins, and, so far as we know, still blameless, was ordained as a priest in 1942, aged 24. Perhaps he would have made a bishop. Instead he misbehaved at a girls’ school (the details aren’t clear) and had his licence withdrawn in 1944. After that things started to go wrong.
Wrong but also peculiar. He carried on conducting church services, illegally – including at St Paul’s in 1945. He got a job at a school and then eloped with the deputy headmaster’s sister-in-law, which seems a little contrived. He signed up to his first bigamous marriage, in Scotland, in 1946 (not with the sister-in-law), and was afterwards arrested. He jumped bail and set sail for India. In 1948 he started calling himself Peters. From there the pattern was set. He addressed congregations whenever he could and began to apply for religious posts, university courses and academic jobs, inventing his credentials as suited the occasion. He also began to be found out and thrown out, again and again. By the time he arrived in Oxford in 1958, he had already taught at Trinity College, Toronto and Wooster College, Ohio; been principal of the Consolidated School of Franklin, Quebec; served time in prison; served as secretary to the bishop of Birmingham (before being caught appending his employer’s signature to letters of recommendation for himself); been formally defrocked by the bishop of Bath and Wells; already been the subject of at least two tabloid splashes; and enrolled as a student at the University of London twice over, once as an undergraduate and once as a postgraduate.
After Oxford, he only became more daring, despite what he’d told the Sunday Pictorial about his wild days being over. He continued to falsify his age. He continued to conduct services illegally and refer to himself as a reverend. He was appointed to or held jobs at countless schools and universities in Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and applied for one in Kuala Lumpur. (Sisman calculates that he was deported from five countries in total, three times from the US and twice from Canada.) He continued to get married. He constructed what the historian Patrick Collinson admired as a ‘magnificent library’ out of books he hadn’t paid for. He regularly plagiarised. He wrote a bad book (one academic disbelieved the rumour that it had been written by Peters’s fourth wife because ‘it would, I think, be much better than it is’). He wrote a bad PhD thesis which was failed. At the towering height of his impudence, his CV claimed a first in theology from Oxford, a first in history from Liverpool, MAs from Oxford and Cambridge, and an MA and a PhD from Manchester. Only the Manchester MA was genuine, though he should never have been allowed to study for it in the first place. He founded a theological college in Shropshire and was its inaugural principal; later he started one in Cambridgeshire that survived almost until his death. He appeared on Mastermind as ‘Dr Robert Peters, Minister of Religion’ in 1983, getting seven questions right on his chosen subject (William Temple, former archbishop of Canterbury) and nine wrong. He claimed, falsely, to have written a book called Know Yourself.
Simon Winchester blurbs Sisman’s book as an ‘utterly mad and wholly delightful story of chicanery and fantasy … which involves a man who relentlessly duped our most cherished institutions of godly pursuit and higher learning’. This, incidentally, is a form of imposture, given that Winchester is thanked as an early reader in the acknowledgments. But it also strikes several false notes. To begin by pointing out the obvious, Peters’s is not a ‘wholly delightful story’. He was by all accounts a very unpleasant and inconveniencing person; the bishop of Bloemfontein, one of those whose path he waywardly crossed, thought him the ‘most wicked man I have ever met’. There is nothing delightful about the treatment of his wives, or the many other women he was engaged to and abruptly dropped, or about his pestering of schoolgirls and female colleagues. Or about the fact that several couples found their marriages rendered invalid because the services had been conducted by him.
Nor, really, is there anything ‘utterly mad’ about Peters’s life. ‘He is such a plausible character,’ the Renaissance specialist Denys Hay said of him. ‘He might well get himself onto the committee of any body he was connected with.’ Had Sisman wanted to, he could have written a different and far more interesting book that used Peters as a way of shining a light under the many doors that opened so readily for him. The ingredients are all there, still in their wrapping. Peters’s globetrotting and the ease with which he picked up employment says something about the university sector in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in North America and the Antipodes. It says a good deal more about the power of the Oxbridge brand, at home and abroad, that simply claiming qualifications without proof was usually enough to get Peters whatever job he wanted. Though of course it wasn’t only or mainly about the qualifications. A former colleague at Trinity College, Toronto remembered that Peters had ‘a cheerful, round face and a confident manner, an accent that was convincing enough, and a fund of Oxford gossip’. A former student at the same institution thought that ‘much of Parkins/Peters’s success in convincing people of his bona fides depended on his rudeness … “He would work himself into a position of authority and then use that position to put people down.”’ The fact that he was never especially interested in maintaining a low profile – publishing in academic journals and attending conferences, writing letters to the Times and appearing on TV, as well as being regularly exposed in the press – just goes to show how willing people were to trust in an accent and a bit of Oxford bluff. Throughout, Sisman shies away from psychological explanations of Peters’s behaviour, only to slap down a diagnosis of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ on the final page. But is it a coincidence that this stooped, crooked man with his middling talents, the son of a solicitor’s clerk (not of a solicitor, as he claimed), became obsessed with Oxford and Cambridge, ‘fairylands of ancient privilege and exclusiveness’ in the 1950s, as Neal Ascherson described them, ‘almost immune to social change, innocently convinced of their own superiority’? How shut out did Peters have to feel, to want so badly to get in? And wasn’t his whole experience proof, in fact, that his lack was as great as he felt it to be? He knew which doors were closed to him, and saw perfectly well who they opened to.
Impostors are people other people are looking for, and every age gets the impostors it deserves. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s dismal impersonation of a historian and a writer, with his Brexit-boosting book The Victorians (Allen, £20), is exactly the sort of thing we had coming. Male, spectacles, suit, accent, habit of Latin quotation: Rees-Mogg is someone people are inclined to take seriously for no valid reason at all. His book is criminally bad. I’m not going to pretend to have read it all – I have a PhD in 19th-century British history, and some self-respect. It is a criminally bad book. But I doubt that my or anyone else’s saying so will make much difference to anything. Trevor-Roper was fascinated and amused by Robert Peters, but also spent a great deal of time and energy informing susceptible institutions and departments that he was a fraud. ‘History [for Trevor-Roper] was not a game,’ Sisman sums up, ‘it was the foundation of everything worthwhile. Truth needed to be defended from ideological bias, from sloppy scholarship and from lies.’ And yet Trevor-Roper went on to authenticate the fake Hitler diaries in 1983, destroying his own reputation in the process (he abandoned his dossier on Peters in the same year, presumably having lost his fondness for conmen). Similarly, the most popular of the many damning reviews of Rees-Mogg’s book was written by A.N. Wilson, whose biography of Darwin was shown to be full of egregious errors and weird prejudice when it was published in 2017. History is not a reliable scourge; facts do not make for firm friends.
Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, the one triumphant in European elections for the second time in five years, the other dangerously proximate to 10 Downing Street, are both obvious impostors, men who are where they shouldn’t be, unqualified for the seriousness of the times. Sisman’s verdict on Peters, that he resembles one of those ‘serial bankrupts who quickly rises again after each collapse’, could equally well apply to them. Farage failed at every attempt to win a Westminster seat, resigned the leadership of Ukip three times, and now fronts a buoyant new party, having insisted after the Leave vote in June 2016 that he had ‘retired from politics’, despite the fact that he never stopped being an MEP. His claim to be a ‘man of the people’ has repeatedly foundered on a history of dodgy mates, dodgier financing, and tweedy self-love. Johnson’s CV meanwhile is Peters-esque, though more implausible: sacked as a trainee at the Times for inventing a quote, Brussels correspondent at the Telegraph (famously flexible with the truth: see bendy bananas), columnist (including a spot in GQ writing about cars), editor of the Spectator (until he was sacked), MP for Henley, Have I Got News For You host, fired from the shadow cabinet for having an affair and lying about it, mayor of London (and sponsor of crap projects: illegal water cannon, infernal Routemaster bus, illusory airport, insane Garden Bridge, entirely unused Thames cable car), elected MP again, big-money author (his indelible study of Shakespeare is a stain on the horizon), foreign secretary. Prime minister?
Where Farage and Johnson are concerned, there have been ‘Gotchas’ galore (‘You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?’ Eddie Mair said to Johnson on live TV all the way back in 2013), but we still haven’t caught them out. The desire to expose, to unmask, to denounce – to shout ‘They’re not who you think they are!’ – is natural enough. It should also be interrogated for its usefulness. The attitude of the tabloids to Peters – variously depicted as a likeable chancer, cocking a snook at the Establishment, or as a cheeky ‘Romeo of the Church’ – is a reminder, along with Simon Winchester’s present-day endorsement (‘wholly delightful’), that the British have long had a liking for rapscallions, people who stand outside norms and flout accepted authorities, or who pay lip service to them with their fingers crossed behind their back. Shamelessness can get you places. After all, there’s a strange sort of authenticity about a man who lies straight to your face.