Ironic, isn’t it, that a man whose surname starts with “con” would be a con-artist. Well, not ironic, not really, that’s like that song by what’s-her-name… Alanis something-or-other… anyway, it’s not ironic, it’s more fitting; apt; proper… in a roundabout way. Though con-men don’t have a sense of propriety, do they?
It’s not that I didn’t have any other option, I don’t want you thinking I have no choice because we were too hard-up, or that I come from some long and morally-grey-yet-roguishly-loveable line of con-artists dating back through time immemorial; nothing like that. In all reality I’m from quite a prosperous background, comparatively speaking. My mum was a district nurse; all hard work and long hours, with all the patience and bedside manner of a lactose-intolerant dairy-farmer. My dad, though, was a different story. He was an academic; doctorates and fellowships coming out of his ears! He was the kind of person who considers a Master’s Degree to be a warm up, I’m sure you know the sort.
My parents met when my dad was having his appendix removed. He was in recovery, probably a bit nervous and on some pretty heavy medication. Anyway, my dad comes round from his anaesthetic and starts spouting off to all his ward-mates about the history of the hospital and its “noble and glorious heritage” – that’s my dad’s subject, you see, history. Anyway, it’s a testament to how mind-liquidisingly dull hospitals are that the rest of the ward were strangely enthralled, and my dad was just getting into his full flow when my mum walks in and, without a moment’s grace, told him to quit his codswallop rambling and belt up. She pulled no punches whilst telling him the hospital was “a 70’s concrete monstrosity with an appalling track-record, and the fact that it hadn’t been shut down was purely due to the fact that that last four hospital inspectors had, quite by ironic coincidence, all got sick when they were due to visit and didn’t bother turning up!” My dad was so shocked at the blunt outburst that he was momentarily speechless, which was a state of being that had only ever been duplicated when he was four years old and his older sister – my aunt Grace – convinced him that if he opened his mouth for too long then the North Wind would steal his voice. He lasted ten minutes before deciding it clearly wasn’t worth the pain of his opinion not being heard. Suffice to say my dad was not used to being interrupted – certainly not so unceremoniously – and he found it so refreshing that he proposed then and there! My mum was so tired and impatient from her shift that she looked him up and down and then agreed. They were married two months later and went off on honeymoon to Malta (lovely history, my dad said). It turns out my mum was right about the hospital because it was shut down before they got back; I think it’s low-rent offices now.
Just before you start thinking that my career choices are some kind of reaction to my hastily-married parent’s horrific divorce proceedings, by the way, my mum and dad are now in their eighties and still happily married. My dad still pontificates wildly, my mum still tells him to belt up, and the world keeps on turning.
No, it’s not parental tragedy that led me this way, though possibly it might have something to do with parental example. I remember my dad marking essays for MA students, when I was young, and he always used to get furious if a student hadn’t put their best into the work. He could always tell and it was like he took it as a personal affront, or something, he used to go off on one about “knowledge is the free gift no one chooses to claim”, how “wasted potential was the greatest loss to humanity”, and claiming “if someone is too stupid to realise how clever they are then they deserve to have it taken from them.” Of course, at this point my mum would always come in and tell him to belt up, right on cue, but that last one always stuck with me. See, I’m smart – I don’t say that boastfully or arrogantly, just as a statement of fact. I’m not as smart as my dad, and not smart in terms of musical genius or artistic excellence, but I’m smart; smart in terms of people; smart in how they think; smart in how they’ll react.
I have four degree certificates – three are forged by a friend of mine and I just hang them on the wall when it suits me – but the real one is in psychology. I had (and still have) no huge interest in psychology, nor any huge desire to spend my life helping people, or bury myself in altruistic endeavours, or publishing self-help books for people who can’t afford therapy. If I’m honest I went to university for the same reason as most students: I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and I was far too afraid to enter the real world and find a job. I think I chose psychology because it seemed like a fitting pairing of my mum’s medical background and my dad’s intellect and academia. Anyway if it all went wrong, I figured, I could always teach.
I digress. So I learned quite a lot during my degree, and I surprised myself by actually enjoying the experience. To my dad’s everlasting shame I achieved a 2:1, which was served with a side-order of his disapproval, “You’ve not been listening to a thing I’ve said, have you?” he lamented (as my mother, predictably, told him to belt up) but boy was he wrong. See nothing give you a clearer sense of how stupid a bunch of clever people can be than spending three years in, what is essentially, a residential home full of them. Students – kids really – swallowing whatever pseudo-intellectual babble their lecturers spout, strenuously duplicating each other’s every move in an effort to find individuality, furiously spending money they haven’t got as if it’s infected, and all the while developing entirely unwarranted left-wing political allegiances in some mistaken sense of empathy with the “oppressed under-classes”. Nothing, in my opinion, is more middle-class than a student who swear they “eschew the whole class-system because it’s just designed to hold people down, and anyway I’m working-class; my daddy is a tax-inspector and I once hugged a labourer while I was on my gap-year.” If you want true individuality in a university then you’d have to find a Tory-voter who lives within their means, stays tea-total, and joined university when they were forty-seven.
You can’t fool someone like that; someone who really knows who they are. You can’t fool a poor man, either, or a self-made man; they really know the value of things. They understand that when an offer looks too good to be true it’s because it is, and they’re not too polite to tell you to piss off while the door closes in your face. The other lot, though, the ones who’ve spent time living on overdrafts and credit-cards, the one who’ve been taught the “importance of new experiences” and “expanding one’s mind”, and who actually believe the phrase “you have to speculate to accumulate”; they’re the ones who are too stupid to know how clever they are, so they deserve to have it taken from them.
What surprised me most is how easy it all is. Don’t get me wrong, there are times where I’ve had to graft like a pack-horse, but on the whole it’s surprisingly easy to shake a few grand out of people – just ask a car salesman. By habit I’m not a greedy man; I’m sure you’ve heard of others in my line of work who’ve conned millions out of a string of unsuspecting victims, but you’ve most likely heard of them on the news, preceded by the words “Police have apprehended…” They got greedy. They got caught.
No, I’m quite happy making a few grand of profit per month, and I’m happy to pay my taxes. Oh that’s right, I pay my taxes… well that’s not, strictly speaking, true. For the purposes of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs I pay tax on the earnings I make running a small counselling and psychotherapy centre. I’m not going to Al Capone myself by being one of those morons who gets caught for not declaring income whilst living in their three-bed semi in Loughton!
But I digress again. I’m good at that. I believe they call it the gift of the gab and, in all honesty, it does help in this business. See, the operative word in Con-artist isn’t “artist” – people who think that tend to end up wearing suits with stripes or little arrows on – it’s “con”. Confidence. You have to have it in yourself and instil it in those around you, which is, as I’ve said, surprisingly easy. All you really have to do is tell someone a little bit of truth, a little bit of something they believe to be true, and a little bit of something they want to be true. Couched on that sliding scale people rarely notice how long ago they waved goodbye to the world of fact, took a selfie at half-truth, and entered the realm of the spurious.
The stuff you hear about only finding a dishonest man and making them feel like they’re the one conning you is utter rubbish. Trust me, no one is more suspicious than a person who feels like they’re getting something they don’t deserve; if you’ve ever picked up a five pound note on the street and given a shifty look left and right as you put it in your pocket, then you know what I mean. The simple fact is that no one gives to a dying cause and no one likes to stand out from the crowd, you have to convince them that everyone’s doing it – all the cool kids – and after that it’s just a matter of how much… and it’s a foolish man who turns his nose up at fifty pounds whilst demanding five hundred; fifty quid will pay for milk and keep you in stamps, which is not to be sniffed at.
The real finishing-touch though? Overtness. Be so overt that you’re covert! No one believes they’re being conned by a man who looks ridiculous. Con-artists dress in boiler-suits and hi-viz-vests, or suits with a name-tag; and they prey on vulnerable old ladies and unsuspecting insurance customers, don’t they? Con-men definitely don’t dress like a struggling social-worker, or in a full military uniform (how I got my nickname), and they definitely don’t dress like a cross between the Saga Magazine and Hipster Weekly cover models, then knock on the door of an art gallery. That’s one of my favourites – an art gallery.
I flatter myself that I have an expansive repertoire. I do all sorts: investment opportunities, charity runs, business supplies, but my favourite is an art gallery. No, before you think it, I’m not forging art, that’s an incredibly un-cost-effective enterprise, not to mention a highly risky one. No, I simply claim to represent a fringe-famous or up-and-coming artist; I put in a few calls, set up a website with pictures ripped off some amateur artist’s website, arrange a meeting and turn up in dark blue chinos, deck-shoes, a black roll-neck, and a black blazer with a matching pocket-square. No one could possibly believe anyone trying that hard to look arty could be fake. As a finishing touch I throw in something slightly shabby; uncover a bald-spot; miss a spot shaving – no one believes that guy could possibly be a con-artist, I mean con-men dress slick and smart, don’t they?
During the meeting it’s always the same routine: I open with a line about the importance of fresh talent and artistic integrity (I little bit of truth), move on to talking about how funding and opportunities for artists has completely dropped off (a little bit of what they believe to be true), then spin it out with a few lines about how my artist is bucking that trend. To wrap it up I just have to imply that a few important folks from the industry have shown interest, a few wealthy collectors have commissioned, and a few mid-range but respectable galleries have hosted his installations and come out of it pretty cosily. I’ve not yet walked away without an advance on an installation and, if I’m lucky, a fifty percent commission-deposit too. Simple, effective and modest; a financial success that will keep me set for a few weeks. I usually email or call the gallery later to tell them that the artist was arrested, overdosed on drugs or committed suicide; you’d be amazed by how many don’t even sound surprised.
I’m not naive, I don’t think this is some kind of victimless crime, and I’m not labouring under the delusion that all the people I’ve conned were bad people. I’ve seen galleries close-up, or heard of people I’ve come into contact with really struggling after their brush with me. I’ve grown thick-skin over the years, and I’ve learned to take it in my stride, after all they were clearly too stupid to realise they were clever so they deserve to have it taken. Anyway, con-men don’t have consciences, do they?