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

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.