Stephen Hendry

This week sees the publication of snooker legend Stephen Hendry’s autobiography, ‘Me and the Table’, which I’ve ghosted for him. Stephen dominated the game right through the 1990s and won everything in sight, setting records that still haven’t been broken.

Deservedly, he’s had a lot of coverage this week across all media, including radio, TV (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/snooker/45423898) and in print (https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/other-sports/snooker/stephen-hendry-opens-up-epic-13195462)

Stephen’s story was fascinating, and had a much more psychological aspect to it than I realised. In an individual sport like snooker, so much depends upon what’s going on ‘upstairs’ and the level of mental effort and concentration needed to be a consistent winer, as Stephen was, is phenomenal. And when this slips, as it did in Stephen’s case, due to a cueing problem, it drags everything with it…

Personally, I found Stephen a very pleasant and cooperative person to work with. He was incredibly professional too, perhaps not surprising since he’s been in the public eye from the age of 14. He was always on time, always willing to answer questions and he always made me a welcome cup of tea with exactly the right amount of milk and sugar!

It’s always a pleasure to work with people like Stephen and I hope this book opens new pathways in what has already been a fascinating career.

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Jan 2012. Myself, Verne Troyer, Lonny and Ray, somewhere in L.A

In the early part of 2012 I stayed with the late Verne Troyer for a week, putting together a long pitch for his autobiography, which we all hoped would lift the lid on an extraordinary, inspirational and often chequered life and career in the movie business.
What a week that was…..
At the time of writing, the circumstances around Verne’s death hint at tragedy, in which drink and depression appear to play a major role. Yet let no-one say that Verne didn’t live a big life, despite his size. A week isn’t long enough to get to know anyone, but at least you can take away a snapshot that isn’t too blurred around the edges, and by the time I arrived home I’d certainly had a taste of life at the outer limits of Hollywood.
I arrived in L.A., jet-lagged and spooked by the mandatory grilling from US Immigration, to Verne’s opening question: “Do you fancy visiting the Playboy Mansion tonight?”
Well, that’s some offer….. I wondered if the beds at the Mansion might be comfortable, and whether there was much chance of being able to find a nice, quiet single Bunnyless one where I could nap off my previous 11 hours fastened into Economy. But before I could reply,  his very nice manager took me aside. “Verne’s not allowed to go to the Mansion,” he said, “cos every time he does, he comes back with a gold-digger.”! Point taken.
Verne and I spent hours every day, talking over his life-story while sitting in his room, which was furnished by the tiny chairs and sofas made for him on the set of the Austin Powers movie. He had a terrific story to tell, one of absolute determination not to be different from anyone else, despite being just 2ft 8. He was a wild one, alright. Nothing and no-one stopped him from having as much fun as possible. And yet, despite being one of the world’s most recognised people (going around LA with him attracted unbelievable amounts of attention everywhere we went) he lived very modestly. He was a manic driver, too. He would tear across the freeways like he was Ayrton Senna. I imagined the headlines… ‘Brit writer in superstar dwarf death-smash.’ It would’ve been some way to go.
He also had a very large streak of kindness and thoughtfulness that I think stemmed from his upbringing in the Amish community around Michigan. He knew he would always be stereotyped, yet his ambition was to play the lead in a rom-com that didn’t centre around his size. Wishful thinking, I guess, but a noble ambition all the same. He showed me an independent film he’d starred in, called Bit Players. It (and he) was brilliant and if he’d played his cards right he might have been considered for more parts like this. Sadly, I think he was perhaps just a bit too much of a handful for the major studios.
I came back from L.A. looking forward to working with him again later in the year, once the project had sold. Unfortunately, it didn’t. This was due to a combination of various elements – not a few publishers, I think, felt repelled by what they perceived as his ‘freakishness’. He was upset and frustrated that the project didn’t take off, feeling no-one was interested in him. In turn, I felt for him because I knew his was an amazing and inspirational story, but I also thought that one day things would turn around for him and there would be a happy ending. That would then be the time to re-pitch the book.
Obviously, there will be no happy ending now. I just hope that Verne Troyer, an unusual and interesting man in far more ways than the obvious one, is at peace now. RIP, mate.
PS…Verne and I did eventually go to the Playboy Mansion….well, up to the main gate, at least. “Shall I press the buzzer?” he asked me. “We’ll have a great time, you know…..”
I considered my options, and realised that if things became really heated I could always make my excuses and leave. Bringing a gold-digger back to Somerset would’ve taken some explaining, I felt. Particularly when she realised there was very little gold to be had. And in life, I’ve always been more observer than participant, shall we say, and in any case, a few hours of Verne’s company in the Mansion would be the stuff of pub conversation for the rest of my days.
“Your call, Verne,” I said.
He wound down the window and his finger hovered over the button. Then he withdrew his arm. “Nah,” he said. “It’ll only get us both into big trouble….”

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I’m often asked why I decided to become an author? The answer I give is that I didn’t decide – it kind-of chose me. I didn’t engineer the situation. It happened by accident, and before I knew it I was attempting to fill 350 pages with words of varying quality. Then my first book was shortlisted for a campaigning journalism award and I headed into the future in a gold-plated Lada.

That was in 2007 and up until now I’ve believed that it all started there. But having just been asked to join a Facebook group relating to my time (1990/1991) on a post-graduate journalism course in Preston, Lancashire, I realise that the seeds were sown much further back than I realised. And this is why:

I left university in the summer of 1990 with the idea I’d be a newspaper journalist. I’d done a bit of work experience on a couple of local papers and had enjoyed the newsroom atmosphere. The informality, levity and liquid lunches mixed with periods of intensity suited me, I thought. So I applied for, and got on to, a post-graduate newspaper journalism course in Preston, the town I was born in, had gone to sixth form in and had worked in as a teenager.

I turned up on the first day, having commuted in from my parents’ house 10 miles away, armed with pen, notebook and typewriter. Yes, a manual typewriter, with a ribbon and everything, borrowed from my mum. This course had no computers which, even in the digital Ice Age of 1990, felt a little archaic. Nonetheless, we were told that from now on we were all trainee journalists and had to think, act and write like the local newspaper hacks we would become.

And, for me, that’s where the doubt started to creep in. I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t much of a local newspaper hack. It wasn’t snobbery by any means but try as I might, I couldn’t summon up interest in learning about local government, or knowing the right abbreviation for ‘Councillor’ (Cllr or Coun, depending on your paper’s house style). Small kitchen fires and large-cheque presentations bored me. I liked the law lectures, and was very appreciative of the fact that, finally, someone taught me something about grammar and punctuation. I learned shorthand (which I can still write, but don’t) and I discovered how to structure a news story so that the paper’s sub-editors could cut it from the bottom if necessary (‘”Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”).

Other than that, it just wasn’t happening. I used to go home on the train, wondering why I had so little enthusiasm for the news stories we were meant to gather for the course ‘newspaper’. Stuff about college funding. What happened during a night out at a dismal local club. Something on at the Guildhall….. My course colleagues seemed to eat up this stuff, chasing around Preston with pencils and pads. I simply made it all up as I went along, hoping that my increasingly implausible ‘news’ stories would slip under the radar. In truth, I preferred fiction to fact. Not great when you’re planning to be a journalist, though in hindsight I might have thrived at the News of the World.

To this day I’m not sure I even passed the course. The thing ended in the summer of ’91 in a flurry of disappearing lecturers and disappointing shorthand exam results. I certainly never went back to pick up any form of post-graduate certificate and given we were now in the middle of a nasty recession, there seemed little chance of getting a job on a local paper.

I spent the summer at HM Government’s leisure (as you could as a post-post grad in those sunny, far-off days) but I couldn’t stay on the dole forever. Gentle nudges from my parents propelled me in the direction of the job centre, and in the autumn of that year I picked up work in a catalogue company, processing orders. In Preston. With a fellow young reprobate, I would smoke dope during lunchbreaks and spend the afternoon hilariously misaddressing Christmas cards, wrapping paper, stocking fillers, etc. I remember once processing an order to 10 Downing Street. It’s perhaps no surprise that John and Norma Major seemed to like catalogue shopping. But it didn’t even cross my mind to sell this story to the nationals…it just shows how ‘natural’ a hack I was.

The catalogue company folded just before Christmas and I was back in the DHSS (again). I did some moody work with a local butcher I met in a pub, and was nearly electrocuted by a fridge that had been wired by a colour-blind electrician. Still, I learned how to make sausages and brought home my efforts for Christmas Day. They all exploded. On Boxing Day, I went round to a grim little terraced house, and sat with the bachelor butcher as he poured me drink after drink from a range of optics attached to his wall. In silence, we got hammered. It seemed an apt way to round off 1991.

The New Year brought nothing. I applied for a few newspaper jobs but heard no more. I was drinking, getting stoned and wandering the streets day and night, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Eventually, inevitably, I cracked up. I was lucky I had family around me; had I been in a dank squat in Depreston, I don’t know what would have happened.

What did happen was that I borrowed a hundred quid from my gran and went to New York to see a friend. At that stage I’d never even been on a plane, but tranq’d up on Valium and whiskey I made the flight from Manchester to JFK and arrived, open-mouthed, into the great switchback chaos of Manhattan island.

New York, I discovered, is an excellent place to have a nervous breakdown. You’re certainly not alone in your strangeness. After a few weeks and many adventures I realised that the world contained far more madness then I could ever wish to carry and as I headed home (in the company of a huge party of ultra-Orthodox Jews, praying and crying that our plane wouldn’t crash) I knew that somehow, everything would be OK-ish.

In the late spring of 1992 I made my mind up to be an antiques dealer, as you do when you’ve qualified (or otherwise) as a newspaper journalist. But then, unexpectedly (and because I knew someone who knew someone) I landed an interview with a weekly paper. I skimmed over the vagueness of my qualifications for the job and impressed them with my knowledge of the rules of cricket. They wanted some poor sap who would spend every Saturday of his life at a windswept northern playing field, watching shivering men in white, and so it was that I landed the position of trainee journalist. For the next five years I reported on small kitchen fires, large-cheque presentations, and cricket. I loved every day of it. Even the cricket.

The point is (finally!!) that if it hadn’t been for the uncertainty over my future and the slide this precipitated, I’d have never accepted the challenge of writing a book many years later. By then, I understood very well that lives, even successful ones, are all about treading carefully over and around pitfalls and cracks – and it is these cracks which interest me most as an author. When people fall into them many unexpected things happen – and not always for the worst, either. Even after almost two decades in journalism I was still no good as a foot-in-the-door hack, but what I did have was the ability to empathise, and to be able to shut up and listen when someone wanted to tell me something central to themselves. I knew what they were saying, because I’d been there too…

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brown ladyI’m a ghostwriter and not a ‘ghost writer’. I don’t write about ghosts, unless they’re the ghosts of people’s memories (which is a different thing altogether). But as it’s Hallowe’en, maybe I should share a ghost story. A true one too – because it happened to me.
The setting was an old farmhouse by a loch in Renfrewshire, Scotland, that provided B&B accommodation. I won’t say exactly where it is – my experience was in 1985 and while the place is still running as a B&B I doubt whether the owners are the sort to cope with ghosthunters. But I could be wrong…
We were due at a family wedding in Glasgow. I was sharing a room with my younger sister and older cousin. I’d just turned 18 and was desperate to fill my hollow legs with as much ‘heavy’ and Scotch chasers as I could down in two hours. I begged my cousin to let me come with him to the local boozer and he said ‘yes’. Sadly, I was an amateur drinker in those days and after a couple of pints of Tartan I was feeling decidedly green, so I came home early.
My sister was already out for the count in her bed when I tiptoe’d in through the door. I got changed and climbed into my single bed face down, the usual position. An hour or so later my cousin stumbled in and flopped on to his bunk. The man who would be ‘Best’ the following day was still fully clothed and within two minutes was snoring like a hog.
I lay awake, wondering whether to give him a shake in the full knowledge I’d be told to do one the minute he woke up. Soon, though, the tremors eased and he drifted into a deep sleep.
Lucky him. It was 1am, I was wide awake and we had a long, boozy day ahead. I turned this way and that, trying to nod off. Somewhere down the corridor, a latched door rattled in response to the wind whispering through a half-open window. Outside, a flock of geese flitted in a low murmur across the loch. In response my cousin farted noisily and my sister ground her teeth.
Then I felt someone place their hand gently on the back of my head. There was no grip of any sort, just a light touch. But it was a touch that remained, even as I turned my head quickly up from the pillow, expecting to see my sister or cousin standing there.
“John?” I said. “Marie? Is that you? What’re you doing?”
There was no answer. The two sleeping forms across the room didn’t stir for a second. I lay back down, a bit spooked but otherwise unconcerned. Maybe I was dreaming – though I knew I wasn’t.
I still couldn’t sleep. I stared into the darkness. My A Levels were in two months and I’d done no preparatory work. But I had written a couple of riffs on my guitar for our band, which was going to be massive, cancelling the need for qualifications of any sort. I’d never have to have a proper job and I’d buy my disgruntled parents a farmhouse like this one, and I’d have my own fishing lake, and…..
And then I became aware of a shape standing in front of the bedroom door. A form, recognisably human in that it had a head, shoulders and a body, but one without features or limbs. Like a chalk drawing on the air. I stared at it for what seemed minutes. The form remained stock still – staring but not staring.
“Hello,” I said. No reply.
My parents were sleeping in a room down the corridor. Maybe the figure was my dad getting up for a pee and losing his way?
“Dad? Is that you?”
Dad never lost his way anywhere, because my mum always supervised the map. So it couldn’t be him.
“Who is it?”
I could feel a weird electricity in the air. Almost smell it. The figure moved across the room, slowly, silently, and stopped at the end of my sister’s bed.
That was it. I scrabbled for the bedside lamp, reaching for the elusive switch just below the bulb and knocking over a glass of water in the process. On it went, waking up my cousin.
“Tom! What’re you doing, you pillock!? Put that f… light off!”
“Sorry,” I said, “I thought you were moving about…..”
“Well I wasn’t. So turn that bloody light off and go back to f…. sleep.”
I did both. And surprisingly calmly too, all things considered. In the morning I asked my dad if he’d wandered into the room. Of course he hadn’t. He’s a short, bald, cricket-loving, deep-sleeping Lancastrian, not a tall, ephemeral, milky-white wandering spirit. My mum caught the conversation and related it to the B&B landlady.
“Ach,” she said, “don’t be worrying about that. It’s nothing.” Then she smiled knowingly.
She was right. It was nothing. Nothing that I, in 30-plus years of wondering, could ever make sense of, anyway….

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Uluru,_helicopter_view,_cropped

I’m a big re-reader of most things, particularly cereal packets and shampoo bottle labels (depending where I’m sitting), and recently I decided to take another trip into Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 ‘classic’ The Songlines.

I first read this for a university module a couple of years after it came out. Aged 22, I was suitably dazzled by its post-modern mash-up of fact, fiction, storytelling, reflection, scholarly insight and travel book. Now, having just been to Australia for the first time (albeit to a Perth suburb more akin to Neighbours than anything approaching a dusty Outback settlement) I thought I might once again pick up on the ancient Aboriginal vibrations cited by Chatwin, and thereby find my way from Bristol to Bath without a satnav.

Sadly, this time around the book was a crock of shit, as the Aussies might say. The kaleidoscopic, encylopaedic sprawl that seemed to cast new light on a culture long since consigned by White Australia to the empty beer can of history was nothing more than an exercise in literary showing off. At best, it seemed dubious (not that that’s always a bad thing); at worst it was short-sighted, Eurocentric and – crime of crimes – it didn’t have much of a story.

There, I’ve said it. A book about the oldest stories known to man has, at its heart, little or no story-telling skill, no narrative structure. I didn’t want Dan Brown, for sure, but passing acquaintance with the classic three-act drama might have been just a bit helpful. In the 80s, such quaint notions were extremely unfashionable (and yes, maybe it’s my age) but today the desire for gripping stories, well-told and with characters we either love or hate, but are never indifferent to, is, I think, stronger than ever, especially in deeply uncertain times.

I’m not alone in this. Among the coterie of hip late 80s writers Martin Amis stood out as being particularly tricksy when it came to plot. Yet even he seems to have mellowed. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he had this to say about one of his best-known novels: “I was snooty at some radio event where people read your novel – it was London Fields – and then you take questions from them, and a lady said, ‘I’m sorry, but I struggled with it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t care about the characters.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m afraid you should really not be thinking about that. You should be thinking about what the author’s trying to do.’ But I think she was dead right.” It is the truth before which all matters of style melt away. “You have to give a shit.”’

You certainly do. Indifference to character is, in my book (so to speak), one of the greatest disappointments a reader is forced to bear. You HAVE to make your reader care about your cast. It’s no use hoping that three-quarters way through the book they’ll suddenly start to admire the curmudgeonly white middle-aged man spending his life watching Netflix. Yes, he can be this character right the way through the narrative but if he’s the one taking us into his world we have to care about it, and him. And when I say ‘care’ I don’t mean ‘empathise’. ‘The Sisters Brothers’, by Patrick DeWitt features two of the most despicable, unlovely and murderous people ever to walk the earth but because they’re so well drawn we can’t help but root for them – even if we do want them to die right from the beginning. The satirical German novel ‘Look Who’s Back’ (Timur Vermes, 2013) is another case in point – dammit, by the end of the book we’re actually cheering on Adolf Hitler!

Chatwin’s sound and fury is in sharp contrast to a much lower-key book I read late last year (and have re-read and re-re read). ‘Neither Dog Nor Wolf’, by American author Kent Nerburn, is also a road trip featuring Indigenous people (American Indians this time) and the author is again at the centre of the story. This time, however, the sense of the white man not just learning something, but being subsumed and even humiliated into considering a way of life that mixes patient understanding of the universe with deep and righteous anger, is quietly palpable the whole way through. By degrees, the book builds into a visceral climax which involves sacrifice (of sorts) and redemption too. Last year the book was made into a low-budget movie that reflects all the stillness, reflection and rawness of the paperback.

You don’t have to be gentle with your characters. You don’t have to like them. But you have to show them off, in all their dimensionality. Character drives plot, not the other way round. Characters act the way they do because of who they are, and how they react. Chatwin’s book is, if anything, too convenient. He had the ‘plot’ – he just needed a few stock characters to flesh it out. Hence its one-dimensional nature, and a lost chance to describe a way of thinking about existence few had heard of at the time.

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