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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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt