Ghosting in from left field

Published on 7th December 2020
Author George Dodds

One of my favourite all-time quotes is attributed to journalist, social commentator and raconteur Christopher Hitchens who opined: “Everyone has a book in them and, with a few honourable exceptions, that is exactly where it should stay.

Had I heeded his wise words then the west wing of the ancestral pile would not be dominated by an ever-growing mountain of publishers’ rejection slips saying “thanks but no thanks” along with words and phrases such as “derivative”, “poor plotting”, “lacking nuance”, “flimsy characterisation” and “plagiarism”.

And so the tale of two shell-suited Scouser best mates and their off-licence robbery spree on a mobility scooter, Thelma and Chantelle, the story of two BDSM obsessed chefs, 50 Shades of gravy, Wansbeck hospital-based vampire thriller, The Satanic Nurses, supernatural children’s tome Henry Porter and the Asthmatic Wombat of Amble seem destined to, along with fantasy thriller Glory, Glory Sunderland AFC, never to see the light of day.

Of course if you can’t think of your own story you can always borrow someone else’s.

Most autobiographies come with a ghost writer. Sport has always been rich pickings both for the full-blown post-retirement life story as well as weekly think pieces for local and national newspapers.

When he was a young footballer making his breakthrough at Crystal Palace in the late 1980s current England football boss Gareth Southgate used to go straight from training to the offices of the South London Press and type out his weekly column. But by and large sportsmen and women use the services of a ghost.

Arrangements are made to ring them up, the burning topic of the day is discussed, the journalist then goes away and rattles out 600/800 words of cutting edge prose which then appears in print.

Often that’s the first time our superstar becomes aware of what his or her thoughts actually are but backs are patted, cheques authorised and everyone goes home happy – except often the hack who has done all the work.

Back in the day they often got no actual credit and were mightily peed off, hence the “as told to” line which became the norm in the nineties.

It used to be much the same with autobiographies. The star would give up a few afternoons to tape some reminisces, offer up scrapbooks and access to the family picture archives and then relax while the ghost got on with the graft of fleshing out the bones, checking facts and liaising with the solicitor on some of the more controversial moments. Nowadays it often appears that money is saved on the fact-checking.

Unfortunately those putting their lives in the spotlight tend to still have a dog in the fight – working either as pundit, coach or agent – often all three – and the trick is to reveal enough to titillate without upsetting those you may be still be able to offer work or, more importantly, access to the lucrative corporate and endorsement sector.

As a result autobiographies often promise more than they deliver but remain lucrative sources of income for publishers and subjects alike. There are honourable exceptions – Tony Adams, Eamon Dunphy, Andre Agassi, Roy Keane and Tony Cascarino spring to mind with  Cascarino’s especially revealing as we discovered he actually had no Irish ancestry despite playing 88 times for the Republic.

Sadly too many follow the amateur DIY wallpaper scenario – everything covered with one or two cracks showing and annoying air bubbles often left untreated. Cheats, drunks, womanisers, dubious business partners and friends are normally un-named “you can probably guess who I mean” –exceptions being those who are dead, no longer involved in sport or already been “outed”.

Of course one of the dangers of “having a go” in your autobiography is the opportunity for the victim to hit back in print later. Often better to be safe than sorry is the mantra so dirty opponents become “hard but fair” cheats “push the legal boundaries” non-paying employers “aren’t always the easiest to work with”. And so-on and so-forth.

Covid 19 has a lot to answer for having wiped out virtually all live sport in Britain in 2020 but one of its biggest legacies may yet be a plethora of ghosted stories vying for the publishers’ shilling in 2021.

Sporting icons – and journalists – found themselves with time on their hands and began to think that their sporting deeds and lives in general would make compelling reading.

In speedway Chris Harris has already appeared on social media inviting ghosts to bid for the world’s fastest Pastie’s tale.

But – rather in keeping with a racing career based on his ability from the tapes – one-time Bandit Kelvin Tatum has beaten him to the first bend with his Tales from the Top Drawer.

TV and roadshow sidekick Nigel Pearson ghosts Kelv’s career in a glossy offering which plopped through the letterbox last week showing how they spent their spare time this summer before the Poles staged the 2020 GP series and the commentary gigs returned.

Speedway books – especially in recent years – have been few and far between so any addition is welcome. Kelvin was one of those Brits who abounded in the late 80s and 90s – pretty good but not quite top draw (pun intended) world class at conventional speedway but almost unbeatable on the lucrative continental longtracks and grasstracks.

Respected, admired but not quite loved by all except his biggest supporters, Tatum also had something of a reputation – deserved or otherwise (yes I am available for ghost writing gigs) – of chasing the cash. That was how many explained his somewhat scattergun approach to switching clubs before dropping domestic speedway to concentrate on Swedish League, longtrack and the fledgling Polish League.

All of which is acknowledged but not explained in any depth Tales from ….

Indeed – with the exception of his dislike of Robert Barth – Kelv doesn’t go too deep into much of what, truth be told, was a pretty good career on and off track; one which spanned the tail end of the British Golden era and speedway’s migration of power behind the old Iron Curtain.

From my point of view the most interesting piece was about how far Polish speedway has come from the chaotic early post-Communism days to the slick world domination of current day speedway – and the fact that Kelv was so opposed to the GP format for World Championships that he boycotted the initial longtrack series before becoming evangelical for the multi-meeting events. Of course it could all have boiled down to money.

And his Bandits days? Well he liked Terry Lindon to start with but didn’t get all the money that was promised – but he still likes coming back here with his roadshow (hint, hint).

Disappointingly frugal fare but I suppose a reminder that what was a monumental period for Bandits’ fans was just another adventure for team Tatum.

There are much more informative books to be written about THAT season – I wonder if Dick and Razor are looking for a ghost writer?

George Dodds
George Dodds

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