Man and typewriter

Recently I wrote an article about my ghostwriting work for ‘The Author’ magazine, published by the excellent Society of Authors. It’s out this week, and here it is in full:

By their very nature, ghostwriters are shadowy, spectral creatures and as a literary spook with 15 years’ experience I’m no exception. Like others in my chosen profession, I’ve learned to put my ego aside as I watch ‘my’ books race up the best-sellers charts, and I’m secretly relieved that it’s not me, but my author, parading in front of TV interviewers to sell his or her wares.

But, you know, when we’re not haunting publishers’ offices or seemingly waiting an eternity for our celebrity client to get out of bed on time, we do like the company of our fellow writers, of whatever genre. Which is why, a couple of months ago, I applied to join a writing community based in the South West of England. The proposition looked good – a group of published writers bunching together to support each other and newer writers, and willing to give talks, lectures, workshops, whatever.

So I sent off my spiel (“former journalist, highly experienced ghost, 21 books nationally and internationally published, given talks, workshops, etc..”) and waited. After a day or two, I received this:

“Thank you for your application to join us, which we have now had the opportunity to review.  We are very sorry, but ghost writers are not eligible to join.”

And that was that. No reason or further explanation. Somewhat surprised (to say the least), I pressed them on it, and was told that the inclusion of a ghostwriter in this writing community (which I’ll not name – part of my job is keeping secrets and in any case I’m sure they‘re doing a great job for other ‘real’ writers) could undermine newer writers developing their own work – i.e. that I might somehow waft in and offer to help such people by writing their books for them.

Well, that wasn’t the point of the application at all. I just wanted to hook up with my fellow writers, offer some tips to those needing a leg up and talk about what I do to anyone who might be interested.

But reading between the lines it appeared that I was not a ‘real’ writer to begin with……After all, isn’t it simply the job of the ghost to record the musings of his client and transmit them to the page with the minimum of effort?

Of course it isn’t. And now, having huffed and harrumphed a bit, I’d like to make the case for the ghostwriter not just as a ‘real’ writer, but also as a genuine literary talent and a force for good in the publishing world. Let me explain…..

In 2007 I fell into ghosting by accident. A friend was commissioned to ghost a book about a farm, but couldn’t make the deadline. He passed the project to me, then a freelance journalist, and a couple of weeks later, never having written anything longer than a 1,500-word feature, I found myself on the said farm, spending freezing nights in a derelict caravan full of hens and equally chilly days interviewing the two young people trying to make a success of this down-at-heel venture. After a week I returned home with chilblains and a tower of cassette tapes. ‘What now?’ I thought.

I transcribed the tapes in a week, giving myself RSI. But as I listened and typed some ideas for structure emerged. When I started to write the book, I found I was bringing the ‘voices’ of my interviewees to life on the page. Quite naturally I was introducing novelistic techniques including pace, tone, colour, dialogue and perspective, combining these with the journalist’s eye for a story. Many years of writing news reports and reading both fiction and non-fiction dovetailed into a reasonably decent first draft. There was some to-ing and fro-ing with authors and editor – there always is – but after three months or so we had something publishable.

The proof was in the pudding. The book was reviewed very positively, and was shortlisted for a campaigning journalism award. The authors appeared on TV’s ‘Richard and Judy’ and as I watched I thought, ‘I’m glad that’s not me’. By now, I’d realised this ghosting lark was a pleasant, interesting yet challenging way to make a living, and the rest is history – and memoir, autobiography, self-help, humour and many other genres I’ve been immersed in.

More than a decade on, my main source of income is writing books. It isn’t a big living, admittedly, and advances certainly aren’t what they were. Nonetheless, it’s been a fascinating journey that has taken me right around the world, and into the company of many extraordinary people.

Yet one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, ‘Don’t you mind not having your name on the cover?’ No, of course I don’t. I’ve used all my literary skills -and a very high percentage of listening ones  – to craft a story from a  jumble of information and ideas. But that’s where the parallels with the novelist stops. I tell stories to the best of my abilities, but even when I’m deep in the world I’m helping to shape, renting out a temporary space in the head of the author, I’m still aware that this isn’t my story.  I might be writing it, but I haven’t lived it. So the credit isn’t mine to take.

And on that point….some of the best stories I’ve worked on have come from so-called ‘ordinary’ people (who are, of course, anything but). Never mind the cliché of the celebrity ghosted memoir, which seems to attract much of the sniffiness around the business of ghosting; my happiest work has been with people who have an amazing true-life experience to share and want to put it into print. To this end, I’ve understood how lonely it is to be a whistleblower in the face of injustice, what it means to grow up in a fiercely sectarian divide, how the loss of a parent early on can shape a whole existence and how one can find humanity, love and wisdom in the most oppressive of circumstances. None of these stories would’ve seen the light of day had it not been for varying degrees of what we might describe as ‘editorial help’. Personally, I’m delighted by that, and proud of the fact that such stories are now out there to be heard.

So I occupy worlds internal and external. I gnash my teeth at indifferent publishers, and I fall in love with them when they commission me. I’m forever aware of looming deadlines and sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make ends me. When a newly-published book arrives, I stick my nose into its woody pages before placing it on the shelf with the others. I keep an eye on what else is being published currently, and wonder what the advance may have been. All the things that professional writers do. And yes, when people ask me what I do for a living I reply, without feeling like a pretentious git, that ‘I’m a writer’. Well, how else to describe it?

Fellow ghost Mark McCrum concurs. He’s worked on books with characters as diverse as Prince Harry and Robbie Williams and has given masterclasses in ghosting and memoir-writing.

“It’s much more of an art than people realise,” he told me. “You need good writing skills, obviously, but you also need to be something of a barrister, a therapist and a best friend. You need patience, and diplomacy skills, and you need to know how to put your ego away in a box.

“That said, it’s an unrecognised art and people are very snooty about it. But actually, you’re giving a voice to people with excellent stories to tell, but not the training to write them, and you’re writing in the way that person might do if they’d had that training. That takes some talent. In fact, there really should be a literary prize for ghostwriting. When I die I’m going to leave some money to establish one!”

As someone with a reasonably low boredom threshold, ghosting is the perfect job for me. I’ll never be rich financially, but in terms of experience the cup of wealth runneth over. And I’ve learned a lot about the business of writing, and about people too. So maybe it’s time all us ghosts rattled our chains, stepped out of the shadows and learn to celebrate and share what is unique about this much maligned, yet vital literary art.

www.ukghostwriter.co.uk

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A Belfast Child cover #2This week marks the end of a long journey (and hopefully the beginning of a new one) for Belfast-born author John Chambers, whose book ‘A Belfast Child’ is out on Wednesday September 3.

John’s story is truly extraordinary. Brought up on an ultra-Loyalist estate in west Belfast at the height of the Troubles, for many years John had no idea that his absentee mother was a Roman Catholic from the ‘other side of the fence’. The book explores the tribalism that has divided this city for many, many years, but it’s also about love, loss, family, humour and reconciliation. There’s even a dash of the ‘80s Mod movement thrown in for good measure.

It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to work on this story with John, despite it being far from an easy ride. He contacted me a good five years ago and immediately I was intrigued; not only because his was a great story but also that it hadn’t yet found a home. John had been trying to tell his tale for years but it seemed very few publishers were interested in Northern Ireland and the Troubles. Even when we worked on a  great submission and tried all the big names, we failed miserably to get a bite.

It was hard to know what to think, other than ‘Let’s keep going.’ We both knew this was a great story, full of drama and character, and that someone, somewhere must surely take an interest. At times we both wondered whether it was worth the bother, but we persisted nonetheless.

Then two things happened. The first was Brexit. In the wake of the 2016 vote there seemed to be an upsurge of interest in ‘backstops’, ‘hard and soft borders’ and lines down the middle of the Irish Sea. What was all this about, and why was Northern Ireland in this strange position? For those who didn’t know the story (or had simply forgotten) the dark history of the province was aired once again and now, publishers were taking an interest.

The second stroke of luck was that I contacted Maggie Hanbury, the redoubtable London-based literary agent, about John’s book. Immediately, Maggie saw for herself what John and I always knew – that this was a cracking story which deserved publication. Maggie got to work (and got me to work, writing two more sample chapters) and within weeks found us a publishing deal with Bonnier/John Blake.

Finally, we had a home and a few quid with which to fund the writing. Luckily, John doesn’t live far from my home town in Lancashire, so I was able to combine visits to family with interviewing sessions. John is a great storyteller, relating tales with native wit and humour, even in the story’s darkest moments, so right through the process he was a great interviewee.

Still, I wanted more, so I proposed a joint visit to Belfast for research purposes. Of course, it’s changed a lot (for the better) since John lived there; even so, there was plenty to see that related directly to the tough times he lived through during his childhood and teenage years. We had a great few days exploring the area he grew up in and meeting the people he knew back then. We even ended up in a holding cell in the former Crumlin Road jail, in which he’d carved ‘Up The Mods’ on the wall in the 1980s (unbelievably, the graffiti was still there). We had a few pints here and there too, soaked up the following day by the classic ‘Ulster Fry’ breakfast or pastie supper along the legendary Shankill Road.

Then it was back to the writing and by autumn 2019 we had a hard-hitting, heart-warming story to deliver to our publisher, ready for release in Spring 2020. Then Covid-19 struck, everything went skywards, and here we are in September, a few months late but still raring to go.

The story of this book’s journey to publication kind-of proves that you shouldn’t give up easily. Sometimes you really do know when to quit; other times you have an inkling that somewhere along the line you’ll get lucky. I wish John every success with ‘A Belfast Child’. He deserves it, not only because of what he went through but also because he had persistence, patience and humour. And my god, don’t you need that latter trio in the publishing game!

For more info about me and my work, visit www.ukghostwriter.co.uk

To buy A Belfast Child via Amazon visit www.tinyurl.com/wzpp5ra

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Typewriter with Story button, vintage

Below is a blog I’ve just written for my friend Anita Turner’s website: www.mindaloud.org

 

For the person who is anxious (and let’s face it, that includes pretty much all of us at one time or another) the current Coronavirus crisis is a rollercoaster ride unlike any other we’ve ever experienced.

 For example, last night I played a series of silly card games with the people I’m locked down with, before going to bed knowing that I’m safe and secure among those I love. But at 4am I was wide awake, worrying if my days as a writer are over and if they are, what lies in store for me beyond this traumatic period? At 8am, however, I was up and out with the dog, drinking in the spring sunshine and listening to the birds at their joyful best, while walking on roads largely free of traffic.

An overnight shower has made the morning air even cleaner, clearer, than it has been these last few weeks. The stream by the field gently burbles, seemingly taking pleasure in the fact that it can finally be heard above the day-to-day noise of human activity. To misquote Dylan Thomas, the very houses themselves seem to be sleeping now. And I realise that in the midst of fear and tragedy, there is so, so much to be grateful for.

These simple responses to nature are, in fact, hugely powerful; so much so that I don’t really want to go back to how life was ‘before’. Sure, I want to meet friends and relatives, visit places, get on with my life. But do I really want a return to the inevitable stresses and strains of 21st century living? Does anyone? Despite everything – loss of income, fears for health, the looming shadow of death – I can’t remember a time when I felt calmer and ‘in the flow’. I look beyond these current troubles to a world in which there is most definitely such thing as ‘society’, and I hope and pray for a complete re-evaluation of the rights and responsibilities for every one of us in this post-pandemic society.

The lockdown period is providing us all with golden opportunities to assess our place in the world, and to create something new from confusion, chaos and fear. People are re-discovering old skills or having a go at new things. Many are getting used to working from home, and are wondering why they bothered to sit in endless traffic jams for so many years. Shopping as a participatory sport is dead, temporarily, and we’re being guided towards simpler, less expensive pursuits. We’re re-connecting with nature in a big way, and we’re learning to appreciate the people closest to us whom we previously took for granted.

There’s a strange feeling of utopia generated by this crisis that we shouldn’t ignore, even when the bells eventually ring out and the post-virus parties begin. For better or worse we will never forget this experience, and maybe we will begin to understand why our grandparents and great-grandparents often spoke of the Second World War as the best time of their lives. I used to think, given all the death and destruction of the era, that it was a strange thing to say. Now I get it, and I wait with anticipation to see what we will all do with the lessons we’ve learned during this extraordinary period.

Tom Henry is an author, ghostwriter and journalist. More about him can be found here.

 

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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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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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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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