The English Ghost

My Italian publishers once tried to explain to me why translating the title of my novel Ghostwalk - a ghost story about Isaac Newton, quantum physics and alchemy - would make it sound like a children's story. There was no established tradition of ghost stories in Italy as there was in England, they told me apologetically. Italians did tales of revenge, yes, and love stories, definitely, but ghosts? No, not really. Ghosts slipped through their language. The Chinese publishers, on the other hand, had no trouble at all. The Chinese have had ghost stories and festivals
for centuries; ghosts take easy shapes in the lexicons of both Mandarin and Cantonese.

The English, however, have more ghost stories than any other nation. We have scores of words to describe supernatural apparitions, all nuanced by place and region, most of them derived from Old English, Celtic or Anglo-Saxon words, such as "boggart", "dobbie", "ghoul", "hob", "swath" and "wraith". We are obsessed with the past, with ruins and with history; we live on a densely populated island, pressed up against the dead, close everywhere to a tombstone or a plague pit or a war memorial. Perhaps that is why - at least in the stories we have told ourselves around open fires at Christmas and Hallowe'en - they seem to be with us always, lurking on the edges of things.

Peter Ackroyd's new collection, The English Ghost, is not an anthology of familiar literary ghost stories by M R James, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens or Henry James. Instead, the author has done something more interesting: he has gathered fragments, sometimes only a couple of pages long, of ghost tales or accounts plucked from old newspapers and forgotten books with strange titles such as Satan's Invisible World Discovered (1685) or The Night Side of Nature (1848) or - my favourite - The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers (1984). Some of the stories are recounted by Ackroyd; others are reproduced in the original prose.

There is something artless, uncontrived and unliterary about the tales that Ackroyd has collected. Most of them are oral narratives, often told at second hand by reportage, but some of them at first hand by letter. One begins: "There were two of us saw it . . ." Another starts: "About the month of November in the year 1682, in the parish of Spraiton, in the county of Devon . . ." The teller is almost always concerned to record the exact time and place of the sighting, as if, to be believed, all apparitions must be located exactly in time and space: "On Sunday night, while walking home down London Wall . . ." The secret of a good ghost story sits somewhere in that tension between precision and unfathomability, between the over-described and the impossible to describe.

Most ghosts in this collection appear where you would expect them to appear - on walls, bridges and castellations and in churchyards. However, there are motorway ghosts here, too - the grey-haired pedestrian dressed in a grey coat and carrying a torch who appeared repeatedly to lorry drivers on the A38, for instance, the one who would sometimes accept the offer of a ride, was anxious about picking up some suitcases and would disappear between or under lorries. Or the girl who was run over one night by a motorist on the road between Rochester and Maidstone. The driver carried her bleeding body to the side of the road, but when he returned with the police and ambulance men, both the corpse and the blood marks had disappeared.

Ackroyd's fascinating collection beautifully demonstrates the banality of ghosts - the way in which, as Henry James once observed, the greatest mysteries are those encountered not in some castle in the Apennines, but at our own front door, "the terrors of the cheerful country house and busy London lodgings". And because this collection, subtitled Spectres Through Times, is arranged chronologically, we can trace the unfamiliar banality of ghosts from the past through to the present.

These tales are freighted with images of everyday things or ordinary people acting oddly. The ghost of a 17th-century mole catcher carries
his pole for catching moles, a pipe flies across a room, a ghost that hates wigs tears them from heads, flitches of bacon fall inexplicably from
a chimney where they have been hung, the ghost of a baker makes holes in bread. All of these mundane objects - bread, wigs, mole-catching poles - seem to carry the weight of the inex­plicable presence that is being described; the ghost is made all the more intan­gible by the materiality and ordinariness of the objects around it.

The novelist Toni Morrison once described a ghost as "a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own." Our ancestors appeased their ghosts. They sought to lay them or to "read them down", not to exorcise or banish them. Ackroyd's tales of ghosts are all the more touching for the common humanity of the awestricken witnesses - labourers and vicars, nurses and seamstresses - striving to describe the indescribable. Funny, bizarre and frightening by turns, this is a rich and compelling assembly of stories for winter nights.

The English Ghost
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 288pp, £12.99

Rebecca Stott's novel "Ghostwalk" is published by Phoenix (£7.99)

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.