I’ve been back on the Percy Toplis trail – at the pretty-much-impossible task of separating out truth from all the fictions around him.. He spent his short life pretending to be people he wasn’t to get what he wanted – money, possessions, an advantage, women, or just a laugh – and it seems clear that – like Abagnale – he loved the game of it too, though in a darker way at times. Parts of his story read like a 20th C. versions of native American Coyote or Skeleton Man trickster tales.
Born into a gritty northern mining community in 1896, he spent years impersonating upper class gents and army officers, and slipping in and out of the military with impunity – their plodding bureaucracy unable to keep up with his mercurial twists and turns. The actor Paul McGann – who played him in the significantly fictional The Monocled Mutineer, says,
“As long as I live I’ll never be as good an actor as he was. In modern times, with radio and TV, it’s possible for an actor like me to learn how to do different voices, this walk, that walk… Topliss had no terms of reference except raw talent, his ear, his eye, his absolute balls.”
Fittingly, it’s impossible to even know how his last name should be spelt – he has two birth certificates, one with his name spelt Toplis and one with it spelt Topliss. I’ve tracked down a research fellow at Glasgow University who has done some very interesting work linking psychogeopgraphy with Toplis’ final journey through north Cumbria, and we’re due to talk soon by phone, which I’m really looking forward to. The resonances between Toplis’ life and archetypal trickster tales is an undercurrent through my work on this piece that won’t go away.