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Monday, 17 March 2014

Ghost-writing someone else’s childhood.


I’ve entered some strange and interesting worlds as a ghost-writer. In pursuit of an honest living I’ve had to imagine myself an international drug-smuggler, a professional cricketer, an abused child, a country copper, the proprietor of a chain of milk-bars, an electrician, a bereaved spouse, an explorer in search of the Nile’s source.... I am sure there are more on the list, but right now I can’t recall them all. Right now, I am spending my days imagining life as a child in rural North Yorkshire in the 1970s. Now that’s quite a challenge for somebody who grew up in the south of England in the 1950s and early 60s. Things were different then, and I’m having to adjust my sights.

Firstly, the radio. I just don’t think it was as significant in the life of my subject as it was in my mine. So I resort to having him watch TV. The trouble there is, what did he watch? Not the things I watched after we got our first set in 1959. Not The Lone Ranger, not Billy Bunter, nor that other wonderful comedy set in a boys’ school, Whack-o! whose every episode involved the irascible headmaster laying about his charges with a cane, to our great hilarity. No, those shows had been swept under the BBC carpet by the time my current subject was sitting up and taking notice. So what was hot in 1972? Google: it’s the only way – and, of course, there are numerous web pages telling us all about the favourite kids’ shows of forty years ago.

In trying to recreate a childhood from another age, even something as basic as diet throws up a problem. When I was little we were just coming to the end of the food rationing that had overshadowed my older siblings’ lives. They got one egg and two ounces of butter – four of margarine if preferred - per week! Plus around one and a quarter pounds of meat. I got to play with the leftover ration coupons as I swallowed my spoonful of cod liver oil, washed down with a mouthful of pure orange juice – although bread was still rationed. So too were sweets until February 1953, when I was coming up to four. I distinctly recall being given two wrapped toffees on a Saturday lunchtime and saving them as long as I could. Despite the restrictions being lifted, our diet remained horribly plain. Twenty years later, when this fellow was a growing lad, they had things like fish-fingers, ice-cream and frozen chips.

As for toys – well. Where we would shove a pin through a piece of a cigarette packet, stick it into a piece of wood and make a propeller – and so play ‘war in the air’, and think we were having tremendous fun – my subject was riding around on a gleaming orange and chrome Chopper bike or bouncing across the garden on a space-hopper.

So, no question about it. I am finding this a challenge. The material I’ve been provided is thin. I am having to make things up. I spend a lot of time stomping around the house, complaining that I haven’t got enough to build on; the fact is, at times it suits me to invent characters, settings and action. And I really shouldn’t complain. The good thing about this guy’s story is that he was accident-prone as a child. Always falling off his bike and ending up at A&E. Plenty of scope there to embellish the odd story he’s told me and have him fall in love with a nurse. It turns out too that when he was about eight his family moved into a ramshackle farmhouse – outside toilet, no heating, antique wiring - which his father improved over the next few years. I have plenty of (painful) memories of having been just such a father, always taking on tumbledown houses and fixing them up. For a ghost-writer it’s a huge help when you see scope for working in some of your own experiences. It simply means that you can write with more conviction.

Well, I have 35,000 words chalked off, and have approximately 32 working days in which to supply the remaining 35,000. Should I finish on time – and I generally do - I will have written four books in sixteen months. No wonder I’m struggling to find time for the blog. In any case, I suspect that I am going to be reviewing my strategy on this before long. A few weeks ago I attended a short course in London on ‘Establishing a Web Presence’. I was told, categorically, that I needed to devise a blog, or perhaps even a series of blogs, that dwelt on one particular subject area. One for the football fan, one for the gardener, one for the western enthusiast, another for the self-employed writer. I hear the advice, I see the sense in it, but, like some of those horses I backed at Cheltenham last week, I am balking.  It ain’t me. I like to wander. I like to change the subject. I like to express all the many parts that combine to make me the writer I am. You might even call me a bit of a dabbler, a dilettante. But it’s looking as though I may have to try – after I’ve got this guy through his childhood in one piece – to focus. Horrible word.