Ghost story: Hillary Clinton at a book signing. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
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Mark Lawson on the ghostwriter who popularised the misery memoir

Plus “Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision” at the National Portrait Gallery.

The departure of top politicians generally creates one job for their successor and another for whoever is hired to ghostwrite their memoirs. But William Hague, who resigned from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 14 July, will be expected, as a published author of political biographies, to tell the story himself. Hired typing fingers, however, are unlikely to be left idle. Four of the top six titles in the most recent Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list are ghosted memoirs (including those of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joey from The Only Way Is Essex) and as one of the other books is the biography of a dog, only Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century contains no element of creative seance. Assisted life-writing is a flourishing art and a science for which a fascinating and engaging textbook is now available.

Confessions of a Ghostwriter reveals the secrets of Andrew Crofts, who helped to popularise the “misery memoir” by putting in the heavy word work for books including Stuart Howarth’s Please, Daddy, No. A complete list of his 80-plus projects is impossible because, as he explains, ghostwriters are increasingly required by their contracts to delete their own name. Even when writing about aborted commissions, he must keep an eye over his shoulder for a wigged figure. In a chapter magnificently titled “Sacked by a Glove Puppet”, Crofts is legally unable to identify the TV character whose handlers he antagonised with a too-frank manuscript.

Most often, withheld identities have no effect on the heft of the anecdotes. Crofts was twice asked to write autobiographies with an intended print run of one: the authors were a dying man wanting to leave an account for his future grandson and a divorcing wife who planned to pressure her husband into paying more alimony by threatening publication of the book.

When he does drop names, we get the startling revelation that Crofts was a prospective Boswell to both the Marcoses and the Mubaraks, although respective revolutions in the Philippines and Egypt prevented anything reaching the shelf. Flirtations with such work inevitably raise the question – the subject of Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost, which was partly inspired by Crofts’s career – of whether the life-assister needs to approve of the life. With impressive candour, he admits that he might well have been tempted, journalistically, not politically, by an offer to co-operate on Mein Kampf. Ghosting can open doors closed to reporters and diplomats.

As Confessions of a Ghostwriter is an example of the ventriloquist chucking aside the doll and delivering a monologue, unusual attention is focused on the authorial voice. On this evidence, that voice is bluffly clubbable – publishers are “such august folk”; a book “has sailed out into the world” – but culturally intelligent. Intriguingly, Crofts identifies The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway and Charles Ryder of Brideshead Revisited, voyeuristic plodders who seek access to great houses, as prototypes of ghostwriters.

I turned next to Joey Essex’s Being Reem (a spectral bestseller), which represents an unusually severe test for the memoir form, as the subject became famous for inarticulacy and a lack of self-knowledge, or indeed of much knowledge at all, having once on television mixed up Jesus Christ and Guy Fawkes. But the acknowledgements page makes unexpectedly compelling reading. “Firstly,” Essex notes, “I’d like to thank Lucie Cave for helping me turn my life into words you can read and enjoy. I don’t know why she’s called a ghostwriter, she’s not actually a ghost, she’s a real person!” The tone of moronic bonhomie passes the first test of assisted life-writing – it certainly sounds like Joey.

Haunted canvas

Another type of literary ghost is the image of a writer stamped upon pos­terity through the portraits chosen for the cover of biographies. Hermione Lee’s life of Virginia Woolf nodded to the subject’s modernism by opting for a 1925 Vogue photograph, while Alexandra Harris’s biography went, more conventionally, for a Roger Fry painting.

Originals of both can be seen in the thoughtful exhibition “Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision” at the National Portrait Gallery, among other less familiar images, such as a 1924 Lady Ottoline Morrell photo of T S Eliot and Woolf sitting in front of a fireplace, staring at the camera with expressions of such solemn apprehension that they resemble a couple about to receive marriage counselling from the Spanish Inquisition.

In almost every other image – by Morrell or anyone else – Woolf is sideways on: Man Ray and Gisèle Freund photograph her in such severe profile that her sharp nose seems to be trying to trim the margin of the print. Vanessa Bell, though, paints Virginia front on and softens and broadens the face. An act of sisterly kindness, I suspect.

“Confessions of a Ghostwriter” is published by the Friday Project on 14 August

“Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision” is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until 26 October

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.