Liar, liar: in a post-truth world, writers reveal their biggest fib

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The Oxford Dictionary has declared post-truth its word of the year. But is it always wrong to lie?

Not only had I never done any form of martial art in my entire life, but I couldnt even do any exercise

When I was 21, I lived in Hong Kong, having dropped out of university in London and basically run away. Somehow it worked: I was soon making a living working as an extra in Chinese soap operas, which were broadcast on the mainland but shot in Hong Kong, where it was easier to find white people to play roles such as foreign woman standing at the back of a party. I played her quite a lot.

Many backpackers tried it for a couple of weeks and then moved on, but I had a childhood background in drama and was keen, so the offers improved. They peaked when I got invited to Jackie Chans studios to audition for an unspecified part in his forthcoming film Hot War. By this point, I really felt I was made of magic: I was just some girl from Yorkshire who couldnt even handle uni how on earth had any of this happened? So when I got there and filled in the form, which asked if I knew any martial arts, I wrote a big YES.

Then I sat and waited, reading all of Jackie Chans birthday cards from his mates, which were stapled to his office door. He was away, but the producers finally called me in for my screen test. I think I was videoed reading a few lines from a script. Im not entirely sure, because all I really remember is the bit where they said, reading from my notes, that I could apparently do martial arts? YES, I repeated. Not only was this utterly untrue I had never done any form of martial art in my entire life but I couldnt even do any exercise. I was the least sporty person you could imagine, entirely uncoordinated, and had also acquired a beer belly from enjoying the tropical expat lifestyle rather too much.

Can you show us a high kick? they asked. YES! I repeated, by now fully believing in angels, miracles and just the basic amazingness of me. I wouldnt say that I fell over exactly, more that my attempt to thrust my leg into the air derailed the rest of my body and the floor seemed to shake a little as my arms flew up towards the heavens. I imagine that, for the panel of Chinese experts watching me, it was a little like watching an elephant pretend to be a bird. Ah, they said.

I did not get the part. Looking back, Im not even embarrassed. It just felt so madly wonderful to be free. Sophie Heawood

He shot me a look of withering, friendship-destroying contempt. All my bullshit turned to ash

The Argos catalogue said: Snake Mountain. Skeletors stronghold. Talk into the wolfs head and your voice changes into a scary voice of evil. It should have said: Snake Mountain. A plastic box that looks as if it once contained dildos. Talk into the cruddy, spring-operated box and your voice sounds exactly the goddamn same. But I was five. I wanted it badly.

Everyone else wanted Snake Mountain, too, but it was 40. Nobodys parents could justify throwing that sort of money around. Matthews house was bigger than mine. His school jumper wasnt handknitted, and he had more toys. One day, he told me hed just bought Night Stalker, Skeletors gold robot horse. The seed of an inferiority complex kicked in for the very first time, and I did something stupid.

Yeah, well, I just bought Snake Mountain, I lied.

My regret was instant. Matthew wasnt the type of kid who would easily forget this. He wanted to come to my house to see it. I tried putting him off, but it didnt work. He went above my head, asking my mum if he could come for tea. She said yes, so I was screwed.

I pleaded with my parents to buy me Snake Mountain, but they wouldnt budge. I racked my brain, thinking up ways to cobble together 40, but none came. Eventually, in a fit of abject, sweat-drenched desperation, a solution appeared like a ray of light from heaven.

The next day Matthew came over, brimming with excitement. With my heart in my mouth, I led him upstairs. I opened my bedroom door. And then

Thats not Snake Mountain.

I was anticipating this reaction. He was right. It wasnt Snake Mountain at all. It was a damp cardboard box on which Id drawn a wonky face in Biro.

Yes, it is, I replied, determined to front it out. I cupped my hands around my mouth. Listen to my scary voice. Rargh.

Matthew shot me a look of withering, friendship-destroying contempt. All my bullshit turned to ash. This pitiful my greatest toy is my imagination shtick held no truck with him. He was furious.

Dont tell anyone, I whispered.

As mortifying as this still is to this day, I cant look at Snake Mountain without feeling my stomach lurch it did teach me some important lessons about life. It taught me that actions have consequences. It taught me that its always better to own up. And, most importantly, it taught me that I should have bought Snake Mountain and left it in its box. Those things go for hundreds of quid now. Stuart Heritage

Telling porkies: My regret was instant. Photograph: Lol Keegan for the Guardian

Wheres my salad, he asked. I told him it was still defrosting

If there was some way of communicating to a bull that china is worth preserving, Im sure it would have most of the motor skills required to tread carefully through that shop. I say this because, as a teenager, I was that bull at least when it came to lying. I just didnt know when to do it.

When I was 15, instead of asking my parents if I could sleep over at a friends house, as any normal teen would, I asked if I could stay with my 19-year-old boyfriend for two nights. It was all about practicality, you see: we were driving to Oxford one day and Alton Towers the next, and driving to and from my parents house on top of all that would have been a pain. Unsurprisingly, they answered (and Im paraphrasing), No, 15-year-old-daughter, you obviously may not stay at your much older boyfriends house. I scoffed like Harry Enfields Kevin: Ugh! Whats the problem? His parents arent even going to be there!

They laughed, loudly. You think were worried youll be putting his parents out?

Relieved at my innocence, but amused by my stupidity, they laughed for roughly 17 years.

I worked out the whole lying thing embarrassingly late. I was 17, and had started working Sundays as a waitress in crap pubs on the outskirts of Slough.

Early on, I got in trouble for telling an unnecessary truth. The first customer of the day had ordered a sandwich. When I brought it, he asked, Wheres the salad? I told him it was still defrosting.

During the dressing down that followed, I had an epiphany. When the truth will provoke a bad reaction, you can just… lie. Its magic, essentially. In an establishment where lettuce and pre-sliced tomatoes needed thawing, and the chef morphed from still drunk to monstrously hungover in the first two hours of the day, lying became my shiny new toy.

For a while, I continued to report customer comments to the chef They say the bacon is undercooked/the cabbage is raw/the gravy is lumpier than a rice pudding even though the response was always, Well, tell em to fuck off its my fucking menu. But eventually I would just stand in the kitchen for a count of 15 before going back to the table and giving my, She says shes really sorry speech. A grunt and a gruff acceptance usually followed. I had finally learned how to tiptoe through the china shop. Erica Buist

I was left unsupervised near a paper shredder, I told someone

My forearms are striped with self-harm scars. These wounds were inflicted when I was much younger and fed up with everything. (Im paraphrasing: I was clinically depressed, struggling to find the right medication, and in a lot of pain.) In those days, I wore long-sleeved shirts at all times, until it became unfeasible, or just absurd. You cant go swimming in a shirt or play football in a cardigan. I am neither Thierry Henry nor Mr Darcy.

Years later, when I was either confident or bored or hot enough to start wearing short sleeves again, people began to notice the scars. If they understood, they would stiffen imperceptibly, the conversation becoming suddenly strained. But often they didnt and asked about them. Thats when I started lying.

Its just easier, Id tell myself, watching relief flood their faces as I told them I owned a cat who scratched. (Animals offered a handy alibi for the wildness, and deepness, of some of the slashes.) Over time, though, my excuses grew more baroque. I referred darkly to an accident with a thresher, despite the fact the closest Id ever got to harvesting cereals was bulk-buying Coco Pops.

I was left unsupervised near a paper shredder on work experience, I told someone, without elaborating. As I got older and more frustrated with the question, the lies became preposterous: My first job was training attack dogs for the police, Id tell people, looking them dead in the eye. Or, I became entangled with a flotilla of jellyfish on a European holiday.

I sometimes wonder why I responded this way, and what lies beneath a lie. Unacknowledged anger towards the people asking? An English sense of the indecorous? Shame? I think elements of all of them were present, but there was something else, too. As many politicians can tell you, its fun to lie. It felt creative. To dip a toe into an alternative history, write my own backstory, go one better than the squalid truth.

These days, I am stronger, with less need to lie. Telling the truth is uncomfortable, and can blow up in your face, but thats the risk that makes any kind of connection precious. The scars on my arms have faded now, and blend better with my natural skin tone. Im asked about them far less which is ironic, because Ive finally reached a point where I can talk about them honestly. Rhik Samadder

Thanks to Calum Franklin, executive head chef, Holborn Dining Room, London WC1, for the pork pies. Photograph: Lol Keegan for the Guardian

I pretended to be a Dalek hosting a party at Wagamama

On occasion, a lie is preferable to the truth. I dont lie much now, but I have lied an inordinate amount to celebrities. Its generally been more a fudging of the truth than a downright deceit, and to me has always felt morally sound because it was told in pursuit of another virtue (a salary). I dont for a minute want to normalise lying it leads to a decline in trust that creates cynicism, and worse. But, sometimes, needs must. Here are my professional lies

I lied to Jake Gyllenhaal

I was a teen, he was a teen star; I was a bit drunk, outside the theatre on my own, and he, fresh from starring in Kenneth Lonergans This Is Our Youth, was hovering outside, waiting for his car. I walked over, shook his hand and discreetly passed over one of those boxes of matches with a space for your number. I told him I was from London (lie), 24 (lie) and would be happy to show him around. He smiled and said thank you (lie).

I lied to Tony Wilson

A music festival in Turin, Italy, in the mid-00s, where I lied repeatedly because I wanted to meet Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. First I lied to his manhandlers, a terrifying pair of stone dogs who guarded his DJ booth, then I lied to Tony in order to procure an interview. The lie that I was a British journalist, not a student, in Turin to review music, and not for a holiday worked. He did the interview, and then he died a couple of years later. I eventually sold the story posthumously. Im not proud of this story.

I lied to Bob Hoskins

It was 2007 and I told him I liked his film.

I lied to Benedict Cumberbatch

During a roundtable interview with multiple journalists, I asked Benedict whether he felt he could relate to Sherlock in any way. He paused and fixed his eyes on me: I dont know what you are insinuating, he said, because I was, of course, insinuating he had Aspergers. Nothing, I muttered and passed the mic on. I was then asked where I worked and I lied to my fellow journalists, muttering about a blog. If anyone had known I was there for the News Of The World, asking that sort of thing, theres a strong chance I would have been lynched.

I pretended to be a Daleks publicist

Or, rather, I was paid to lie in the name of social commentary (to ring up restaurants pretending to be a celebrity publicist and make outlandish demands for my clients). I did this a lot, pretending to represent Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Grace Coddingtons hair. A career high was the time I pretended to be a publicist representing a Dalek who wanted to host a dinner at Wagamama and to check there was sufficient wheelchair access. Yes, they said, there was. I stopped this line of work when the lying became too easy, and when real celebrity demands began to outweigh even my creativity. Morwenna Ferrier

Some people are rude to cold callers, some are icily polite and some hang up straight away. I always chose to lie

Ive been a freelance writer for 25 years, and in all that time Ive never not been working. That is the main lie I tell. When people ring or email me about work, I always act and speak as if I am sitting at my desk. Sometimes I am sitting at my desk, but I might just as easily be downstairs watching Homes Under The Hammer, or sitting on the top deck of a bus, or standing in a dusty field in France. That thing I said Id have finished for you today? Yes, Im working on that right now and its nearly done. I never say, Im on holiday and I have no idea what youre talking about.

When I am actually working at my desk, I dont want to talk to anyone. Im busy. Some people are rude to cold callers, some are icily polite and some hang up straight away. I always chose to lie, boldly and without effect. Whenever my phone rang, I deployed my all-purpose office hours response.

Hes not here, I would say. If the person at the other end asked to leave a message, I would sigh heavily, like a useless personal assistant. Yeah, fine, Id say, then pretend to write words on a pad. Sometimes it would turn out not to be a cold call at all, but an urgent inquiry about my lapsed house insurance. But once I started playing someone else, I had to carry on.

And who am I speaking with? said the voice at the other end one day. This was unexpected. A long silence followed.

My names Ron, I said.

Ron, said the other voice, with transparent disbelief.

Yes, I said. R-o-n.

When do you expect him back, Ron? said the voice.

No idea, I said. He doesnt tell me anything.

OK, said the voice, exasperated. Thanks for your help, Ron. I couldnt understand what was so unconvincing about my bad-tempered PA. He reminded me so much of me, back when I was an office temp.

Ron never passed on the message, and I later had to sack him, mostly because he required too much acting. But also because you would sack someone like Ron. No one who called back a week later would believe Ron still had a job. I havent answered my landline since. Tim Dowling

The only time I told a real whopper, I did it in style: on television, in front of millions

I am a hopeless liar. In fact, Im a compulsive truth-teller, to the point of self-destruction. The only time I can remember telling a real whopper, I did it in style: on television, in front of millions. It was, and remains, the low point of my career.

I was due to interview the documentary-maker Louis Theroux for the Guardian in 2002. He insisted we do it in his office. I thought that was unfair; after all, he likes to follow his subjects around, see them in action. But there was no budging him.

At the time, Theroux was making a TV show about the then-undisgraced celebrity publicist Max Clifford. Like many journalists, I knew Clifford a bit, having interviewed his clients over the years. I asked him if there was any way he could get Theroux and I together before our formal, office-based interview. A few days later, I got a message telling me to meet Clifford at Sainsburys in Weybridge in a couple of hours. That was it. I hoped this was to do with Theroux, but there was no other information. (This was typical Clifford: keeping his cards close to his chest, manipulating Theroux and me at the same time.)

I arrived at Sainsburys and spent half an hour self-consciously mooching around the aisles, then decided to leave before I got arrested for lurking with intent. But on my way out I walked into Louis Theroux, Max Clifford and a camera crew. Which is when everything went tits up.

Simon Hattenstone! Theroux exclaimed loudly. What are you doing here?

I hadnt even anticipated this moment, when I would have to make something up. I burbled some incoherent nonsense about being there to interview Clifford, and suggested that now that we were all happily together, through pure serendipity, why didnt we just carry on like a happy family; I could quietly observe Theroux observing Clifford.

Theroux wasnt having any of it. Oh come on, he said, youre obviously here because Max told you Id be here. No, I insisted, my eyes flitting nervously from Clifford to Theroux and back again. Im here to see Max.

Do you often shop together? he asked.

Yes, no, yes, I dont know, I whimpered. Why didnt I just tell the truth? Because I felt a perverse loyalty to Clifford, who had set this up for my benefit. Theroux, slicker than me, suggested that if I had business to discuss with Clifford, I should walk around with him as he shopped, then leave them to make their film.

So Clifford and I walked up and down the aisles. Do you think we should level with him? I asked. OK, begged.

Nooooo, Clifford said, with utter assurance. You came up to do a piece on me, youve read about the Louis thing, you know I come here every week.

Five minutes later, shopping completed, we returned to Theroux. I dont think youve been totally honest, Theroux said to us.

I have, I said, blushing, aware of a huge camera eyeballing me and wanting to die.

The thing is, Max left his mic on, Theroux said, and we could hear everything.

Clifford groped inside his shirt, threw the mic on the floor and walked out, shouting, You can all fuck off! Theroux and his crew, panicked and thrilled, raced after him. I was left alone, humiliated in Weybridge.

For months after the documentary was broadcast, I was stopped on a regular basis. Arent you the journalist who lied? I was asked by a stranger on a train. People were surprisingly generous. They felt sorry for me, they said: I had been caught in a difficult situation, and it was obvious Id wanted to tell the truth. Friends told my partner she was lucky to be with such a bad liar. And the Mirror got in touch to say they were so impressed by my rabbit in the headlights impression that they would like to offer me a job on their undercover investigations team. I think they were taking the piss. Simon Hattenstone

I announced to my classmates that my real family was in fact the A-Team

Like most people, I grew up being told not to lie, and broke that rule when I was but a girl. As the daughter of immigrants, and someone who felt I was the wrong colour, culture and somehow born into the wrong family, I devised what I thought was an ingenious lie. I announced to my classmates that my real family was, in fact, the A-Team. Despite them pointing out that a small Asian woman called Nilu came to pick me up every day from school, I ploughed on. Thats all a cover, you wallies, because of the Situation. My real father is Hannibal, but hes on an international wanted list. Murdock is in a mental health institution and BA cant get on a plane. So Im having to stay with this family called the Hazarikas who live in Coatbridge for safety reasons. But Ill be back with the gang soon. Its no wonder I ended up being a political spin doctor.

I have since become highly conscious of the value of truth in a profession that can treat it casually. When I got my first job, as a junior press officer at the ministry of agriculture, the director of communications, a very hard-drinking, well-connected, Westminster operator, took me aside and gave me the most important political advice of my career: Never lie, even if your boss tells you to and you think you can get away with it. Dont. Its always the lie or the cover-up that gets you in politics.

I always remembered those words, mainly because I was so scared of them. Of course, politicians, like most humans, at times sail close to the wind, and sometimes for understandable reasons personal, security, confidentiality. But there is a dangerously relaxed approach to the truth that has infected our political discourse. I think every politician should be reminded of my old bosss words on an annual basis. Especially when theres a big red Brexit bus involved. Ayesha Hazarika

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