Faking it. Frank McLynn on the life of Prince Charles's celebrated guru: a fraud, liar and crazed right-winger

Storyteller: the many lives of Laurens van der Post

J D F Jones <em>John Murray, 505pp, £25</em>

When Laurens van der Post died in 1996, aged 90, the received view was that he was a distinguished explorer and traveller, also a mystic and sage, a guru to both Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher. But, as this biography makes clear, he was in fact a fraud, charlatan, impostor and Grade-A phoney. The depressing tale begins with his many lies. He falsely claimed to be descended from Dutch aristocracy; to be an expert on Japan and the Japanese; to have explored virgin territory and gone where no white man had gone before; to be an expert on the Bushmen; to have been Mountbatten's political and military officer; to have been C G Jung's close friend and confidant; to have served on a whaling ship; to have met D H Lawrence; to have been an architect of the 1980 Lancaster House agreement. The list goes on and on. He even lied about his age and wartime rank (though a captain, he claimed to have been a colonel and even conned the War Office into giving him a pension at that rank backdated to 1942). As Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman: "Every word is a lie, even 'and' and 'but'." And, as J D F Jones remarks, there have been other notorious recent liars - Patrick O'Brian, Bruce Chatwin, Richard Llewellyn, Laurie Lee, Trevor Howard - but they did not put themselves forward as teachers of high spiritual and moral values.

But mendacity was the least of van der Post's sins. He sacrificed fellow soldiers in war and libelled his collaborators. Of those in a position to tell the truth about him, he blackmailed some and browbeat others. A control freak who none the less toadied to the rich and powerful, he acted with ruthless will-power and pathological egomania to erect a kind of temple to himself, even putting himself forward for the Nobel Prize for both peace and literature. In politics, he was a crazed right-winger with friends such as David Stirling, John Aspinall, James Goldsmith, Kerry Packer and a host of shadowy John Birchites in the United States. Although he falsely claimed a lengthy correspondence with Jung, he did take over many of the Zurich sage's quasi-fascistic, racist and anti-Semitic views. Jones is quite wrong to say that van der Post's book on Jung "handles convincingly the charge of Jung's alleged anti-Semitism". It does no such thing, unless mere assertion is counted as argument. But the most disturbing aspect of van der Post's right-wing politics is that he loathed Nelson Mandela with a psychotic hatred; it was the great disappointment of his life when the Boer extremists did not rise in armed rebellion against Mandela and the ANC in 1994.

Another deeply distasteful thing about van der Post was his love of money. He had many run-ins with tax authorities regarding the subject of evasion. He intrigued shamelessly so that he inherited the family fortune and more deserving people were cut out. Never anything more than a hack journalist with delusions of grandeur, van der Post ran true to form. There is a type of penny-a-liner who, having spent two weeks, say, in a luxury hotel in Buenos Aires, holds himself up as an expert on the folkways of the gauchos, as if he has lived all his life among them. So it was, mutatis mutandis, with van der Post and the Bushmen. Our hero always had to have the best hotels and restaurants, plus first-class travel, and always with someone else paying the bills. He even conned people into setting up the Van der Post Foundation for the Advancement of the Humanities, through which wealthy Americans would cough up to keep his unsavoury hedonistic show on the road. He compounded this impudence by trying to get the "foundation" listed as a tax-exempt charity.

Yet possibly the gravest charge against him concerns his treatment of women. We can put to one side his frenzied promiscuity (by which his wife is deceived with mistress A, who is in turn cheated on with mistress B, and then mistress B is dealt her come-uppance with a series of one-night stands - all, naturally, compartmentalised, in true control-freak manner). But like many womanisers, he was fundamentally a misogynist. If any of his lovers became pregnant, the South African Lothario would immediately leave the country on one of his expenses-paid trips "to promote world peace". At the age of 78, he seduced a woman more than 50 years his junior. Jones is unacceptably coy about van der Post the sexual athlete, but he does at least come clean about his most notorious escapade. Left in charge of a 14-year-old South African girl in loco parentis, he seduced and impregnated her, then shipped her back to South Africa so that no one would learn about the incident; if known, it would have finished him. South Africa was always his favourite dumping ground. He sent his own son away from England to the Cape, to be brought up by strangers, thus traumatising him for life.

Van der Post's fundamental problem was that he was insanely jealous of superior writers, superior intellects and superior creators, but their name was legion. The real mystery about this ruthless, sinister and malign charlatan was why so many of the "great and the good" were taken in by him. The parallel with that other right-wing fraud and phoney, Jeffrey Archer, is instructive. Thatcher bought the entire bogus van der Post bill of goods and said of him, in a sentence notable as much for its Colemanballs as its poverty of mind: "Of all the unique people I know, Laurens was by far the most unique." "There is no such thing as society", another of her mauvais mots, was one of Jung's right-wing absurdities trans- mitted to her by her Boer guru. As Oscar Wilde might have said, to be gulled by one charlatan (Archer) might be accounted a misfortune, but to be duped by two is almost incredible. And yet this is the woman whom her supporters claim as a "great" prime minister. What does this tell us about her, and about them?

Frank McLynn's most recent book, Villa and Zapata: a biography of the Mexican revolution, is published by Jonathan Cape (£20)