Who’s who in world of ghostwriters?

IN 2007 I was working with Mark E Smith, lead singer-songwriter of The Fall, on his autobiography Renegade. One afternoon he rang me up, asking if I could take his typewriter down to ‘our new office’ above a pub in Salford, England.

A ten-minute in and out job, it was the last I saw of ‘our new office’, but not the pub downstairs; pub days were essential to the writing of the book. The typewriter, however, remained untouched by Smith’s fingers: neither word nor letter ever tattooed the page in that quiet run-down room above The Kings Arms.

We wanted the book to be a twisted, sarky comedy with an experimental edge, and Smith was adamant it shouldn’t be ‘too long’.

Ever the consummate collaborator — contrary to popular belief — he left me to the job, to transcribe, edit and order the pile of tapes and notes we’d recorded and scrawled over two and a bit years. Thumbing the RW and FF buttons on my dated dictaphone, backwards and forwards, not wanting to miss a second, a vital word, I saw it as method writing. I was Robert DeNiro or Daniel Day Lewis with a bitten biro, moleksin notepad and an unreliable laptop. But, in the end, who is who on the page when you’re given the job of ghosting? I’m guessing/hoping most readers believed it was Mark E Smith himself who wrote Renegade. He’d afforded me enough of his time to make it authentic. But then maybe not, maybe they knew somebody else had a hand in it, but how big a hand? And who’s this other person anyway — this non-famous meddler? And why am I reading this version of that other person’s story, this legal slab of identity-theft? Here, we veer; we enter Jorge Luis Borges territory by way of the classic — and quite possibly — definitive personality-swap film, Performance, with a bit of Charlie Kaufmann’s signature body-swap angst thrown into the mix. Worlds interweave, skin is shed and re-embodied, lives are exchanged and shelved; it’s a real who’s-who of who’s who.

Point being, people get to see method actors on the screen and either they’re convinced or they’re not; but people rarely get to see the ghostwriter. Like spies, the ghostwriter is generally a hidden presence, collating the details, doing their thing, and then moving on. Only, their thing is out there, under a host of different names and guises. Maybe John F Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage should have been awarded to his speechwriter Theodre Sorenson. Then there’s Pat Hackett, Andy Warhol’s secretary, who wrote and edited his Diaries. Mozart was paid to ghostwrite for wealthy patrons; artists like Damien Hirst take credit for work that has been made by other people — assistants, they call them.

For better or worse, ghostwriters tend to retain the myth and mystery of their subjects. That was certainly my aim when I worked with E Smith. In going it alone, purposefully swerving the clutter of commercial obfuscation, the musician generally reveals too much; which sounds readably juicy; only it’s a different type of too much; an ego-hobbled, ordinarily dreary, burdened by polite lunacy too much, that often reads like a hardback bus ticket edited by a professional yes man: Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace springs to mind.

The two bold exceptions are Ray Davies’ X-Ray, which is very much him: a mosaic of different personalities/unreliable narrators, written in past and present tense. And, more recently, Morrissey’s Autobiography, with its aria echoes of Sons & Lovers-era Lawrence, Ian Hunter’s Diary of a Rock and Roll Star and the grim gifts of Emlyn Williams’ poetically downbeat account of the Moors Murders, Beyond Belief.

But then both Davies and Morrissey are famed for their dominant levels of control, and also for having a way with words: herein, the ghost-less path makes sense. Much the same could be said of Smith. So why didn’t he write the book himself? Good question: but one I have no answer for. And that I’m glad of, for the pub days were either profoundly memorable or messily memorable or a testy combination of both. And any time spent with Smith is always a barmy delight, even when he appears to hate your guts.

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