Typewriter with Story button, vintageI should’ve done this before. I could’ve done this before. I would’ve done this before…shudda, cudda, wudda, eh? Never mind. It’s not quite the end of January yet so I can just about get away with this round-up of my adventures last year before lambs gamble in pastures green, buds burst forth from the trees, etc.

Right after New year’s Day I travelled to Manchester to begin work on a book with Maggie Oliver, the former police detective who blew the whistle on the Rochdale child abuse scandal after she witnessed a huge cover-up by police and social services. She resigned her job because of it, but has since been vindicated. Read the BBC news story here to find out more.

When I met her, Maggie had already been working with another ghostwriter but the results weren’t to her liking. So we started again, specifically on the complicated, controversial chapters that dealt with her growing recognition of the situation in Rochdale and her increasing discomfort at what she was seeing. However, Maggie speaks right from the heart and, armed with her account and a mountain of files and paperwork which evidenced her account, I was able to construct a path through the story to produce a clear and compelling narrative that has been critically very well received. Here it is on Amazon…

Maggie Oliver book pic

 

Maggie and I worked to a very tight deadline indeed but there was no cutting corners – she wanted this important story told in as much detail as possible, which included the coverage many aspects of her career and family life before the Rochdale scandal began to reveal itself. Not every reviewer appreciated this – wanting to get to the heart of the story, understandably – but I thought it was important to give background and context to why Maggie acted as she did. It made her human – a very important consideration in this story.

Anyway, Maggie was very pleased with the results and she wrote this about our experience of working together…

“I began writing my book ‘Survivors…. Maggie Oliver Fighting for Justice’ in 2018, and by late in the year it was clear I needed some help.

 

I was introduced to Tom and almost immediately I knew that I could trust him to write this really important story that needed to be told. My book was not only about my own personal life and the challenges that have been thrown my way, but it was also the story of how the police, social service, CPS and the establishment failed generations of vulnerable children who were groomed and sexually abused by organised gangs of predatory paedophiles.

Under incredible pressure to meet a looming deadline, Tom immersed himself in the detail of my story and studied the issues surrounding the Rochdale Grooming Scandal. I am personally very proud of the published book, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that without Tom’s professional expertise, guidance and encouragement the final product would have fallen far short of what I hoped to achieve.

Tom was kind, encouraging, professional and dedicated, working long hours to ensure a great outcome and I would now consider him a friend too. Should I ever decide to write a second book, I would definitely be seeking Tom’s help from the start next time!!

My heartfelt thanks and gratitude go to Tom…. and my book became an Amazon best seller too, which was the icing on the cake!!!”

Thanks, Maggie! We’ve stayed in touch since, and after publication I was invited to the launch of her charitable foundation at a swanky venue in Cheshire. Icing on the cake for me – quite literally!

Following that work I was contacted by a man called Nigel Roberts, who was keen to have his mother’s memories distilled into a book. He suggested afternoon tea at a hotel in Tetbury so I went along, met Nigel, his wife Bella, and his 92-year-old mother, Olive. From the start, I could see she had a twinkle in her eye and that she’d be a good storyteller – and I wasn’t wrong! Olive has had a fascinating life, from a very difficult start in the North East of England to her experiences in the Blitz and her subsequent meeting of the man she would marry. After the war he was drafted into the fledgling GCHQ and the couple spent many years posted abroad, mainly to the Far East. Olive’s account of her life is warm, engaging, insightful and funny, and she was an absolute pleasure to work with. Her book, ‘Stepping Stones’ is due to be published later this year and I’ll post on this again when the time comes.

In the midst of that I made contact with the literary agent Maggie Hanbury – a genuine legend in the publishing industry. She’s represented everyone from JG Ballard to Katie Price and she’s a forthright, insightful and very entertaining person. I wanted to talk to her about a project I’ve been working on – the story of a guy called John Chambers and his extraordinary upbringing in Belfast during the Troubles. John contacted me about four years ago with his story and straight away I was interested. Not only does it have a fast-paced narrative and an incredible twist, the man himself is a great storyteller, with more than a dash of the blackest Belfast humour. Back then we worked on a proposal but couldn’t attract any attention from the publishing world. Northern Ireland as the subject for a book was ‘over and done’, it seemed. Yet something really nagged me about this and whenever I met someone new, I told them about it. Luckily, I met Maggie Hanbury, who was immediately interested. She read the proposal, asked me to do more work on it (I was happy to oblige) and once that was completed, she said it out on submission. And we got a deal! Thank you, Bonnier Books for seeing what I always saw in John’s story.

I spent time at John’s home in the North of England, and we also travelled to Belfast to get a first-hand look at the places he grew up in. We had a terrific few days in what is surely one of the most interesting cities in the world, and I was definitely richer for the experience. What I saw and learned really helped with the narrative, particularly the Belfast accent and the complexity of the tribal divisions in the city, and from it John and I were able to craft a really excellent story. It’s out in May this year, and it will be called ‘A Belfast Child’.

All that took me up to late autumn, and with Christmas looming the pace slackened a bit – thank God! Now it’s January and again I’m on the lookout for a diamond of a story that might turn into a bestseller later this year or in 2021. So if you’re holding that diamond – whether you’re a publisher, commissioning editor or someone with an extraordinary experience to share – let me make it shine!!

 

 

 

 

 

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Stephen Hendry “When I decided to write my autobiography I met with 7 or 8 ghost writers before I met with Tom. I didn’t want to go down the route of a snooker writer or even a sports writer – I just wanted to tell my story and when I started speaking to Tom he told me that’s what he was interested in doing.

I immediately felt comfortable talking with him as he was so normal and easy going.

When we started working it was very relaxed and it was very easy to open up to him as it was just like chatting to a friend.

Writing an autobiography is obviously a long process but it never felt like a chore as we didn’t do 5/6 hour slogs. Tom felt it would be more productive to do shorter sessions to keep it fresh, and this appealed to me.

I think it was quite brave of Tom to take on a subject which he admitted he knew nothing about, but it’s exactly how I hoped it would turn out and for that I’m very grateful.”

Stephen Hendry. Professional snooker player and author of ‘Me And The Table’.

 

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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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