I reviewed Pandæmonium by Humphrey Jennings in the latest edition of Idler magazine. You can buy copies of Idler magazine at all good newsagents and other shops as listed here: https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/
Here’s the review:
Pandæmonium Humphrey Jennings André Deutsch, 1985
Humphrey Jennings was a filmmaker, poet, painter and intellectual who died in 1950 aged just 43, having fallen from a Greek clifftop while researching a new documentary on European healthcare. The director Lindsay Anderson (If, etc) said he was “the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.” Along with Charles Madge, he founded the Mass Observation movement in 1936, helped arrange the infamous Surrealist Exhibition in London the same year attended by everyone from Salvador Dalí wearing a deep-sea diving suit to Dylan Thomas handing out eggcups filled with string, and he made several wartime documentaries including Listen To Britain and Fires Were Started.
Jennings was a magnetic personality. The wealthy arts philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim had a brief affair with him in Paris in the 1930s, and remembered him jumping up and down on the bed shouting: “Look at me…don’t you think I’m beautiful?” His wartime documentaries for the Crown Film Unit were masterpieces but he could be a fierce taskmaster.
His attention focussed increasingly on the way in which art could faithfully record and celebrate the innate qualities of “ordinary” life, and he began to collect writings which in his view illuminated what he saw as “the coming of the machine age” from the late 17th century to the late 19th century, an age which he increasingly believed “was destroying something in our life.” By the time of his death he had collected over a thousand pages of quotations and notes which were finally edited into publishable shape by his old colleague Charles Madge and published as Pandæmonium in 1985.
Pandæmonium was the capital of Hell described by Milton in Paradise Lost, built by the angels on the instruction of Mammon. Amongst his notes, Jennings had written: “Pandæmonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished. The building of Pandæmonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.” Elsewhere he wrote: “The poets are the guardians of the Animistic system, the scientists of the Materialist system.”
Jennings, with his filmmaker’s eye, referred to his collection of texts as “images” which “present the imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution.” The book is a dazzling collection, featuring famous names — Charlotte Brontë, Friedrich Engels, Edward Lear, Charles Darwin — alongside the forgotten and the obscure. Here’s an engineer named James Nasmyth writing in 1830 on the coalfields of Yorkshire:
Amidst these flaming, smoky, clanging works, I beheld the remains of what had once been happy farmhouses, now ruined and deserted…In some places I heard a sort of chirruping sound, as of some forlorn bird haunting the ruins of the old farmsteads. But no! the chirrup was a vile delusion. It proceeded from the shrill creaking of the coal-winding chains.
Or the priest and poet Charles Kingsley in 1848:
Beauty is God’s handwriting — a wayside sacrament…where [the townsman] may walk through green meadows, under cool mellow shades and overhanging rocks, by rushing brooks, where he watches and watches till he seems to hear the foam whisper, and to see the fishes leap.
Perhaps too sentimental for some — Jennings has over the years incurred the wrath of the furious Left for romanticising rural poverty — the texts which he collated in Pandæmonium compose a beautiful portrait of a far simpler world where meaning was to be found in the relation between man and nature. It is a romanticism which sits alongside Orwell’s vision of a Lost England or William Morris’s advocacy of traditional craft skills and vernacular art forms. To Jennings, this was animism: the secret heart of the individual’s relationship to the earth which the materialist machine age wished to stamp out. He put it this way:
At a certain period in human development the means of vision and the means of production were intimately connected…I refer to the Magical systems under which it was not possible to plow the ground without a prayer — to eat without a blessing, to hunt an animal without a magical formula. To build without a sense of glory.
After Jennings had died so unexpectedly on that Greek clifftop, he was found to have just one pound in his bank account. Most of his work, including his documentaries, he considered a necessary obligation, to enable him to continue to pay the rent and support his family, while he occupied his time in imagining. This collection, Pandæmonium, would take another thirty five years to see publication, thanks mostly to the persistence of his daughter, Mary Lou Jennings, and it remains a unique and vital witness to the changing character of the English nation. Beautifully arranged and edited by Charles Madge, it is perhaps now more than ever, a talisman to clutch close amid the clamour.
Over the years I’ve worked professionally as a ghostwriter, it has struck me now and then that people are probably more capable of writing their own story than they imagine. This course has been designed to try and and encourage them.
Almost all of my ghostwriting work is, inevitably, confidential and therefore I don’t publicise the published books I have written. However, over the last 24 months, I have written the memoir of a leading UK Muslim entrepreneur and philanthropist which hit the bestseller lists; the strategic statement of one of the most senior members of the Nigerian military on the government’s battle against Boko Haram; a ghost novel set in a British village, which is due to be published in 2023; and the business memoir of a highly successful UK entrepreneur working in the beer sector.
I work closely and intensely with my clients, usually over a period of around six months. We meet face-to-face where we can, or on Zoom if the distance demands. I record all our conversations and make sure my clients have access to those recordings. I truly enjoy the process of getting to know my clients and helping them to uncover and reveal their stories; in many instances, we remain friends after the work is complete. I have, I hope, an empathetic approach and remain always entirely discrete and confidential.
This essay, In Search of Shangri-La, is published in Issue 84 of Idler magazine, available here.
‘I am from the lamasery of Shangri-La.’ These first words spoken by Chang, the High Lama’s functionary, in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, introduced the world to the legendary hideaway for the very first time. High up in the Himalayan mountains, virtually inaccessible owing to the treacherous narrow paths which lead up to it, Shangri-La is a vision of perfection lying beneath an eerie blue moon. For ninety years, we have embraced the place in countless ways: why did it embed itself so deeply in our collective psyche?
James Hilton was an unlikely midwife for Shangri-La. The son of an East End schoolmaster, he spent his 20s knocking out book reviews for the Telegraph and writing adventure yarns which never threatened the bestseller lists. He lived quietly in Woodford Green, the north-east suburb of London. After ten years of hacking, Lost Horizon was published when he was thirty three years’ old but it was Goodbye Mr. Chips, published the following year, which made him famous.
On the surface, they couldn’t be more different: Chips is a sentimental tale about the impact of a quiet schoolteacher upon generations of Fenland schoolboys, while Horizon tells of high drama in the Himalayas. Dig deeper, however, and you soon sense the deep mystical rumble that powers them both: Hilton, for all his conventional background and demeanour, was fascinated by woo-woo.
A quick summary of Lost Horizon, for those who haven’t read it: a party of four escapes a dangerous revolution in Afghanistan by aeroplane. They are a brave but eccentric British diplomat known as ‘Glory’ Conway, his puppy-like devotee Mallinson, an American called Barnard who turns out to be on the run from the Feds, and a British missionary, Miss Brinklow. Their plane is hijacked and they end up flying over the Himalayas and crash somewhere on the Tibet/China border. Chang and a retinue appear, take them to the nearby lamasery of Shangri-La, where Conway eventually meets the High Lama and discovers that the inmates have learned how to extend their lives by living in quiet tranquillity and moderation and breathing in the pure air of the remote mountain. The High Lama himself is over 200 years’ old.
Both Horizon and Chips made Hilton a celebrity almost overnight, and with commendable lack of restraint, he hot-footed it to California where he spent the rest of his life hob-nobbing with the stars. It was Frank Capra’s film version of Lost Horizon which came out in 1937 with Ronald Coleman as the dashing Conway which finally brought Shangri-La to the world’s attention. Such was the impact of this romantic vision of a far-off, mountain utopia that President Roosevelt named the new federal government retreat that was completed in 1938 after it — Camp Shangri-La had its name changed to Camp David in 1953 by Eisenhower.
As the years went by, Shangri-La became a commercial shorthand for various notions of rest and relaxation. The Shangri-La hotel group was formed in 1971, and the Chinese-owned behemoth now has 100 luxury hotels around the world; for two thousand quid a night, you can stay at the Shangri-La in Paris and have a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Americans have proved particularly susceptible to the notion: car fan Bill Owen opened the Shangri-La Speedway track in New York in 1946, while a little-known Chinese takeaway in Queens, New York — the Shangri-La — inspired two sets of sisters to name their band after it. The Shangri-Las formed in 1963 and had a smash a year later with Leader of the Pack, touring with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Shangri-Las created the whole concept of rebel pop, and even today feedback fiends Jesus and Mary Chain sometimes refer to themselves as a Shangri-Las covers band.
Hilton’s fictional sanctuary seemed to inspire people to think of, on the one hand, a blissful place of peace, contentment and longevity; and on the other, of rebellion against the status quo. Take a look at the Shangri-La enclave at the Glastonbury Festival: first launched at Worthy Farm in 2009 as a far-out freak session for latenighters, it’s now a full-on drum-bashing alternative politics sideshow which, according to the Glasto website, holds up a mirror to the masses, creates conversations, encourages activism and stimulates the senses. Not quite what Hilton had in mind, one suspects.
But what exactly did Hilton have in mind? Was his Shangri-La just a fancy, an idea of untroubled bliss at a time when Europe in the ’30s was becoming increasingly unstable, or was there something more going on? The paradise that so appeals to Conway in the novel certainly sounds delightful, particularly perhaps to Idler readers. As Chang tells him at one point: ‘It is significant that the English regard slackness as a vice. We, on the other hand, should vastly prefer it to tension. Is there not too much tension in the world at present, and might it not be better if more people were slackers?’
Life in Shangri-La, which extends for each person for decades, even hundreds of years more than it does for people in the West, is tranquil and unhurried, but by no means pious. Inmates are encouraged to drink, take drugs, have sex as well as perfect the arts, as long as they do everything in moderation. It is a life not unlike that proposed by Epicurus in his garden in Athens: modest food, good conversation, a sprinkling of stimulants and an abhorrence of politics and business. As the High Lama tells Conway: ‘Laziness in doing stupid things can be a great virtue.’
Yet this attractive prospect conceals a deeper, mystical vision, which accounts for the curious anomaly whereby Shangri-La today can stand for pampered capitalist luxury hotels at the same time as radical, right-on political posturing. I suspect only Hilton could have achieved this. The American antiquarian bookseller Jerry Watt has developed a splendid theory that Hilton was actually the real author of a book called The Eye Of Revelation, first published in America in 1939 by an author called Peter Kelder. The book introduced to the West for the very first time a series of esoteric yoga practices called The Five Tibetans which laid the grand claim that, by following them every day, one could extend one’s life by decades. Go to any yoga studio in the world today and at some point someone will suggest running through the Five Tibetans. When Bruce Forsyth was about to marry the Puerto Rican beauty queen Wilnelia Merced, who was considerably younger than him, her mother gave him a copy of The Eye of Revelation and told him to follow it religiously, in order to keep time with his younger wife. Like the good soul he was, he did so every day for the next thirty years.
The Eye of Revelation has been a bestseller for decades, also going under the name of The Fountain of Youth. But no-one has ever seen this Peter Kelder, ever; he is a total mystery. His publishers claimed that he lived in Los Angeles at the time of publication in 1939 — the same city as Hilton. Jerry Watt draws plenty of fascinating parallels between the story as set out in the Kelder book and Hilton’s Shangri-La, concluding that Kelder and Hilton are one and the same. I like to think he’s right, because it accords with Hilton’s concealed fascination with Eastern esotericism.
Shangri-la as a name and concept has its roots in the Bon religious tradition of Tibet, which goes back at least to the tenth century. Believers, known as Bonpos, have often been regarded by traditional Tibetan Buddhists as an heretical anomaly, following as they do a lush Shamanic idea which contrasts colourfully with the somewhat dour precepts of pure Buddhism. The Bonpos believed — still do believe — in a cast of animist household Gods who all sound a lot more fun that the strict non-attachment rules propounded by Buddhists, with all their weighty instructions about Good Talk and Good Actions.
The Bon people were originally from a Tibetan plateau region called Khang Ripoche, which can be translated as snow precious; the snowy path leading to it is known as Khang-ree la. The Bon people also lived in a region called Shang-Shung which is believed to be the location for the mythical kingdom called Shambhala. Shambhala is a place of sanctuary imagined by both Tibetan Bonpos and Buddhists, a spiritual place of peace and perfection. The idea of Shambhala was popularised in the West by oddball spiritualist Madame Blavatsky in her 1888 book Secret Doctrine and represented something akin to the Shamanic idea of the Upper World, the home of the soul rather than the body or the mind.
This is where we get to the secret heart of Shangri-La. Eventually, the High Lama tells Conway that Shangri-La exists as a kind of Ark in readiness for when the world finally goes completely mad and a final, awful global conflict takes place. ‘He foresaw a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, would rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing would be in danger, every book and picture and harmony, every treasure garnered through two millennia, the small, the delicate, the defences — all would be lost…when the strong have devoured each other, the meek shall inherit the earth.’
Hilton’s Shangri-La is in effect a heresy to be feared and persecuted by all those who would have us toe the official line, just as the Catholic Church ruthlessly slaughtered the 13th century Cathars for their refusal to believe that human life had any purpose other than as a waiting room before the soul could merge with the infinite. The powers that be don’t like people believing that life on earth has little meaning, because it discourages them from grasping the importance of work, duty, paying taxes and obeying the law. Once you start believing that Shambhala, or Shangri-La, is real, the urge to be a model citizen according to the diktat of Church or State begins to subside.
That’s why the wayward anarchists at Glasto can lay claim to Shangri-La and the Shamabala Festival in Northampton can this year celebrate “twenty years of adventures in utopia” with a decidedly leftfield, eco-political fervour and a lovely-looking audience right out of an Alice in Wonderland fantasy; it’s why the Shangri-Las with their rebel-girl aesthetic — He turned around and smiled at me, You get the picture? Yes we see — could flourish in a country whose President chilled out at Camp Shangri-La. There is a secret code hidden inside the name Shangri-La which I believe thrilled the ostensibly conventional schoolteacher’s son James Hilton and led him to create an heretical vision of a world beyond the control of our masters. It is a world waiting for us where we finally can lead a life of contentment, community and unbridled pleasure.
‘Conway found it pleasant to realise that the serene purpose of Shangri-La could embrace an infinitude of odd and apparently trivial employments, for he had always had a taste for such things himself. In fact, when he regarded his past, he saw it strewn with images of tasks too vagrant or too taxing ever to have been accomplished, but now they were all possible, even in a mood of idleness.’
At the end of the novel the narrator pictures Conway, having allowed his regrettable sense of loyalty to lead him to support young Mallinson in escaping the mountain-top lamasery, struggling single-handedly to return through the inhospitable terrain of the high Himalayas to the mystical lamasery. The last line in the book reads:
A while ago, a friend of mine asked me for my advice about whether she should give a quite small amount of money to someone who claimed he could turn it into a lot of money. I advised against it: it sounds like Spanish Prisoner, I said. What’s Spanish Prisoner? she asked. It’s the oldest con in the world, the granddaddy of them all, in which the sum of money exchanging hands is so small that you can’t believe it’s a con. Surely, if they were out to con me, they’d be trying to take more money from me? my friend persisted. Not so. Spanish Prisoner works in two ways: firstly, the operator is probably doing this to lots of people at the same time, so the small numbers quickly add up. Second, the mark can often be persuaded to double her money, again believing that the sums are so low they couldn’t be a con.
The con is the oldest known in Europe, used as my friend discovered, to this day. It is named after an allegedly true story concerning a beautiful Spanish heiress locked in a tower in 14th century Spain. A few years ago, I wrote a story speculating on how it all might have happened. Here we go:
The Spanish Prisoner
A very long time ago, a bold and fine-hearted knight was riding across the dry, cracked lands of southern Spain. Both he and his horse were tired, hungry and thirsty. They had not spent time with other people for several days and the sun shone upon them fiercely. ‘Have faith!’ the excellent young man called out to his steed, who had slowed now to a meandering walk. ‘Our Lord will provide for us, you need have no doubt on that score!’ The air was hot and still and the knight’s lips were black from the sun. The horse’s ribs showed in pathetic ridges across its belly and its head dropped almost to the ground as it walked. In the distance a pale shape wavered in the heat. ‘Aha!’ cried the knight. ‘A village or even a town, no doubt. We shall sup well tonight, old friend.’ After another hour’s slow progress, the shape revealed itself to be a castle, standing alone on the hazy horizon. The knight fixed his gaze upon it and gently guided his old companion towards the building. As they came to a bridge which crossed a dried-out riverbed, a beggar stepped out from behind a tree and spoke to the knight. ‘Sir Knight!’ he cried. ‘I see you have travelled far. Do you head for the castle?’ ‘I do Sir,’ replied the knight. ‘It is my intention to place my health and that of my trusty steed in the hands of the great nobleman who owns it.’ The beggar shook his head. He was a short man, wearing a filthy jerkin and with unruly hair. He approached the knight. ‘Then your health shall suffer most terribly, Sir Knight,’ he said, and leered up with a toothless grin. ‘Why say you, you ruffian?’ commanded the knight. ‘Do you dare show disrespect to the fine nobleman who has built this castle, whomever he may be?’ The beggar shook his head. ‘No, Sir Knight,’ he said. ‘I mean no disrespect to him whatever, in fact I send all my most gracious salutations to him in his new heavenly abode.’ ‘What? You say the owner of this castle is dead?’ ‘He is dead, Sire, and all of his family bar one are dead.’ ‘Bar one, you say?’ ‘Yes, my Lord. His daughter, the most beautiful young lady in the whole of Christendom, is his only survivor and she rests still in the castle.’ ‘But how can this poor and most beautiful vision be alone with her family all gone? Explain yourself!’ ‘Brigands, Sir Knight. A mere month ago, a band of the most cruel and dangerous brigands arrived in our land and they laid siege to the castle and eventually broke through its defences and slaughtered everyone in it, apart from the lovely Princess, who is now locked in a chamber at the top of that tower.’ With that, the beggar pointed at a tall tower at one corner of the castle, then looked back and directed his toothless grin once more at the knight. ‘By the sacred dagger of Sir Lancelot himself, that is unjust!’ shouted the knight. ‘I shall go immediately to set her free. No filthy brigand shall be safe from the edge of my shining sword.’ And he pulled his ancient weapon from its scabbard and raised it high. ‘I shall avenge this poor lady and set her free and I shall place myself entirely at her service.’ The beggar raised his hand. ‘Not so hasty, Sir Knight,’ he said. ‘You have not heard all of my story.’ ‘What else can there be to know?’ asked the knight. ‘Quick, out with it, I have no mind to dally.’ ‘The brigands have left the castle, my Lord,’ said the beggar. ‘Apart from the Princess in the tower, it is entirely empty.’ ‘Then do not take up my time, fool! I must release her.’ ‘You cannot.’ ‘What say you? Do you dare doubt me?’ ‘No, Sir Knight. I know you to be the bravest man in Christendom. But even the bravest man in Christendom cannot break down the doors of the prison in which the Princess is kept. And there is only one key.’ ‘May the Good Lord strike down the vermin who dared commit these crimes!’ shouted the knight. ‘Tell me, where is the key?’ The beggar shook his head. ‘I do not know exactly, Sir Knight.’ ‘What? You do not know, you say?’ ‘Not exactly, my Lord. For if I did know, I would have released the Princess myself and married her.’ ‘Cut out your tongue, you cur! How dare you speak of the noble Princess with such familiarity? To think that she would consider a betrothal to one such as yourself!’ ‘That’s as maybe,’ said the beggar. ‘But I do not have the key, so I cannot test your proposition.’ ‘My God, but you test me,’ growled the knight. ‘Out with it: where is the key?’ ‘I do not know its location precisely, but I know who has it,’ said the beggar. ‘Who, in the name of all that is decent and fair?’ ‘The brigands, Sir. The brigands have the key. They await a ransom from the English cousins of the Princess and when they have received that ransom, they will release the Princess.’ ‘Where are these foul men?’ demanded the knight. ‘Tell me, and I shall attend to them at once.’ The beggar shook his head again. ‘They are twenty, Sir Knight, and you are one. Despite your glorious and fine reputation as the bravest man in Christendom, there is no doubt that you would not survive a challenge against all twenty of them. Perhaps you would take ten with you, but that would still leave ten and your body would finally submit to their fatal blows and the Princess would remain in her prison, awaiting her dilatory English cousins whose slowness in sending the ransom may cause her to die herself from starvation.’ ‘Ah!’ the knight exclaimed, dashing his hand across his brow. ‘Is there no solution to this foul predicament?’ ‘There is one, Sir Knight,’ said the beggar. ‘Yes?’ ‘The brigands,’ said the beggar, ‘have left the castle and have put up in an inn in the village on the other side.’ He pointed towards the blurring horizon. ‘I happen to know the man who runs that inn. I would say that if I were to take him some modest sum, he would find me the key from the pocket of one of the brigands while they lie drunk in his tavern and he would give it to me. He is my kinsman, Sir Knight, and his father broke bread with my father.’ ‘Enough nonsense,’ said the knight. ‘Tell me where the inn is, and I shall go there myself and see this innkeeper.’ The beggar shook his head once more. ‘No, Sir Knight, and for three reasons no: First, my kinsman will not recognise you, and will not favour you over the brigands who pay for their drink. Second, the brigands themselves may wake from their slumber and set upon you. Third, you and your horse are near the very edge of exhaustion. The inn is a day’s hard ride away. You risk failing yourself in the heat and then what good will that do the beautiful Princess?’ ‘But then the Princess is doomed!’ cried the knight, his face wracked with pain. ‘Perhaps not, Sir Knight,’ said the beggar. ‘I am as you see a low-born man who has not triumphed in the great battle of life. I am as you find me: a lowly beggar who lives underneath this bridge. But perhaps there is one thing I can do: perhaps I can take a few ducats from your own purse and take them myself to the kinsman who runs the inn and exchange them for the key which I can then bring back to you. And perhaps, once you have released the Princess and married her and inherited all the wealth of her family’s kingdom, you might look favourably upon me and grant me some menial role in your stables.’ ‘Go now!’ said the knight. ‘There is no time to lose. The most beautiful Princess is starving in that tower,’ he said, weeping with frustration and waving his hand towards the castle. ‘I must save her.’ ‘My Lord is right,’ said the beggar. ‘Should I make the journey quicker by taking your horse? With some water from my bag she might recover her strength enough to get me to the inn and back within a day and a night.’ ‘You have water? Where?’ ‘In my bag under the bridge, my Lord. Shall I bring it?’ ‘Of course you shall bring it, and we shall give all of it to my fine horse, so that she may carry you swiftly to the inn to exchange these ducats for the key to the Princess’s prison.’ While the beggar went down below the bridge to fetch his leather sack of water, the knight dismounted from his horse and removed his belt which contained his money sack. When the beggar returned, they fed the horse the water and the knight handed over five ducats from his sack. ‘Be sure to ride like the wind,’ said the knight, as the beggar settled himself into the saddle. ‘I shall my Lord,’ said the beggar, tucking the coins into his pocket. ‘Rest awhile in the shade under the bridge and preserve your strength. I shall be back tomorrow with the key to the castle prison and you shall free the most beautiful lady in Christendom.’ ‘May the Good Lord thank you and bless you on your journey,’ said the knight. ‘God speed.’ And with that, the beggar took the horse into a gentle trot and crossed over the bridge. The knight watched him depart and then climbed down the bank to settle in the shade underneath the bridge. He had not eaten or drunk anything for three days and as he lay down to sleep, he had a vision of extraordinary beauty. ‘Princess…’ he murmured, and fell into a deep sleep. The next day, the beggar returned. The knight heard the hooves of the approaching horse and emerged from under the bridge. ‘You bring me the key to my future!’ he cried out, although his voice was weak. The beggar came closer, dismounted and stood in front of the knight, shaking his head. ‘Not yet, my Lord. I fear I did not account both for the greed of my kinsman and the fear which his guests the brigands induce in him. He tells me that he needs another five ducats before he dares search the slumbering ruffians for the key.’ ‘By the hand of King Arthur himself, I shall teach this kinsman of yours a lesson he shall never forget!’ shouted the knight, staggering slightly. The beggar shrugged. ‘Very well,’ said the knight, and took out another five ducats from his money sack. ‘Take this to him and if you do not return tomorrow with the key, then by Jove I shall ignore your advice and I shall go to the inn myself.’ ‘Rest awhile, Sir Knight,’ said the beggar. ‘You should not excite yourself, you have travelled for days in the heat without food or water, you must needs rest, Sire. I shall return tomorrow.’ With that, he mounted the horse once more, and turned back across the bridge. The knight returned to his spot beneath the bridge. Despite the heat of the day his teeth chattered and his brow was wet with sweat. ‘Princess…Brigands…’ he muttered feverishly and lay down on the ground to sleep. The next day, the beggar returned once more. This time, the knight did not appear in front of him, and so the beggar dismounted and climbed down the bank of the dried-out river and saw the knight lying on the ground. ‘Sir Knight,’ the beggar called out. There was no answer. ‘Sir Knight,’ the beggar repeated and his voice echoed under the stone of the bridge. There was still no answer and the beggar approached the knight and peered cautiously at him. The knight’s black lips were open and his eyes stared straight up at the roof of the bridge. The beggar poked the knight’s stomach with his foot but there was no change in the knight’s expression. The beggar crouched down beside the knight and began to untie the belt that held the knight’s money sack. He pulled the sack free, put it in his pocket, then nudged the knight once more with his foot. The nobleman rolled gently down the slope of the bank and rested, arms akimbo, on the dry bottom of the riverbed. Then the beggar climbed back up the bank, mounted the horse once more, and set off at a gentle trot away from the bridge and the castle which shimmered distantly in the silent summer haze.
The following essay on ghostwriting and how to be a ghostwriter is published in the November-December issue of Idler magazine, available in selected WHSmiths, Waitrose and bookshops or by subscription at idler.co.uk/join. Full list of Idler stockists is here: https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/
Ghost in the machine
I was talking to my sister the other day. She and her husband had just finished reading the autobiography of the late Captain Tom, he of the millions raised for the NHS through his remarkable walking adventure.
‘I’m just really surprised,’ my sister said. ‘He was a hundred years old and was a soldier, not a writer. But it’s really well-written.’
‘Well, that’s probably because it was written for him by a ghostwriter,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said, and just for a moment I felt like the horrid boy at a birthday party who sticks a pin in the host’s balloon. After the call, I checked and yes, a writer called Wendy Holden wrote the book at quite a pace after spending many hours with Sir Tom recording interviews with him.
Does it matter? Well, my uninvited revelation seemed to rub a bit of the gloss off the book in my sister’s eyes. I’ve spent years writing books for clients as a ghostwriter so I suppose I’m immune to squeamishness. But why such feelings of ambivalence about the ghostwriter’s trade?
I asked Ivan Mulcahy, the founder of the highly successful literary agency MMB Creative (https://mmbcreative.com). Ivan employs ghostwriters when he decides they’re required on a project.
‘The first thing you have to remember,’ he says, ‘is that people want to read about successful or unusual or super-talented people. We’re interested in what makes people like that tick. But original people are successful for a variety of reasons and, very often, being able to be articulate and persuasive with the written word is not one of those reasons. Good writing is about storytelling, about leading the reader along a magical trail. That’s a particular skill.’
My first ghostwriting job was thirty years ago. A publisher I knew said he’d had an interesting submission from a hypnotist who specialised in past-life regressions. The manuscript wasn’t publishable in its current state but would I be interested in collaborating with the author? I spent several months with the hypnotist, a splendid and larger-than-life man called Joe Keeton. He invited me to sit in on the all-night hypnotic regression sessions he held in north London. About ten middle-aged people would sit around a suburban front room sipping tea with absolute decorum until one of them, called to sit beside Joe and submit to his entrancement, would within minutes be writhing on the floor, shouting ‘Take me Jesus!’ as she regressed to her past life as a Protestant martyr in the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary.
It was riveting stuff and I was hooked. The book which ensued, The Power Of The Mind, became a big seller (I’ve since dined out on the Anne Diamond quote: ‘This book changed my life’).
The trick, perhaps, is to be a bit more upfront about it all. The YouTube blogging phenomenon, Zoella, found herself in hot water a few years ago when her novel, Girl Online, shot to the top of the bestseller charts and became the fastest selling novel in UK publishing history. It then turned out she’d had ‘help’ from a writer called Siobhan Curham and from publisher Penguin’s ‘expert editorial team’. Social media platforms went into overdrive, yelling ‘fraud and deception’ and generally behaving in as unpleasant a manner as those platforms do.
Zoella survived it, but her squeaky-clean image was tarnished. Our over-zealous world is, perhaps, less forgiving now than when Ronald Reagan put out his autobiography and, on being congratulated on it by a reporter, said: ‘Well, I look forward to reading it.’
This isn’t a new phenomenon, Ivan Mulcahy reminds me.
‘Think of the great American publishing editors like Gordon Lish and Maxwell Perkins,’ he says. ‘Raymond Carver’s breakthrough collection of stories, 1981’s What We Think About When We Talk About Love, was in effect part-written by Lish, who created the minimalist Carver we all know through his ruthless cuts and plot changes. And Perkins is responsible for the towering reputation of Thomas Wolfe, despite the fact he slashed well over a hundred thousand words from each of the writer’s novels and generally re-arranged them. Where does the line lie between ghostwriting and intrusive editing?’
Well, like it or not, the glossy celebrity memoirs that feature on the front tables of WH Smith and Waterstones are more likely than not to have been ghostwritten, for the obvious reasons Mulcahy explained at the start. And what about the new trend for celebrities to pen fiction? The Zoella case will give you a clue: someone who has made a successful career and pots of money appearing on popular television shows is statistically unlikely to also be a natural novelist.
One need only observe the huge global interest in July this year when Penguin announced that Prince Harry was writing what they described (with a straight face) as a “literary memoir”, at the same time revealing that the American ghostwriter JR Moehringer had already spent a year with Harry drafting the book. Moehringer did a fabulous job with André Agassi’s autobiography and with that of Nike founder Phil Knight, and is likely to share in a reasonable slice of the reported $20 million advance. Speculation is that he was introduced to Harry by George Clooney, which just goes to indicate what a rarified world these celebs occupy. But Harry at least has probably made the right decision to come clean about his writing partner from the off; whether we like the book or not, we won’t be able to claim he tried to pull a fast one.
Yet, be careful, because talent isn’t evenly distributed amongst us. There are in fact several TV folk, like Richard Osman, Graham Norton and Robert Webb who do write their own, much admired novels. Others are quietly ghosted, or publicly done so, as in the case of music writer Pete Paphides’s brilliant collaboration with Elton John on the latter’s 2019 memoir, Me.
The publishing industry remains tight-lipped about the process. In researching this article, I asked a number of ghostwriters to be interviewed on the record and all, often on the advice of their agents, politely declined. It seems that publishers would prefer to risk the occasional spat like the Zoella revelation rather than encourage readers to believe that many bestselling books with a single-named, famous author are in fact group editorial efforts.
Here’s a game to tantalise you, based on nothing more authoritative than extensive industry gossip. Which famous male novelist constructs his massively popular novels by sending for his team of writers, installing them in his chateau for a week while he wanders around in his dressing gown telling them his latest story idea? Which well-known female popular historian tasks her anonymous ghostwriter with the first draft of her excellent books, only deigning to get stuck in when there is a manuscript to work from?
It seems we just don’t want to embrace the notion of shared authorship, and yet we have no such concerns when it comes to other media such as film, where the contribution of multiple authors to the script has always been accepted. But the solitary experience of being curled up on a sofa with a book seems to encourage us to believe that the author is speaking directly to us.
Mulcahy calls this ‘the romance of having access to someone else’s head’. Who wants some hack ghostwriter getting in the way of that intimate relationship? Chapter Two of Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 1915 novel The Good Soldier begins: ‘I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’ Er, no mention of a ghostwriter, see?
The trick, I like to think, is to be heard but not seen. The effectively ghostwritten book will have all the flavours and faults of the subject and won’t be so perfectly drafted that the subject’s character disappears in a wash of froth. It takes me hours and hours of tape-recorded time spent with a subject to begin to get a feel for how they interact with the world and how they like to present themselves, but often it will be a moment we share when the tape machine is switched off which really reveals their train of thought. Authentic narrators make mistakes, commit the sins of hubris or pride, confess to weaknesses with a wry smile; one of the first indicators of the presence of a ghostwriter can often be the faultlessness of the text.
It can occasionally be a perilous occupation, because as a ghostwriter you are relying on the veracity of the stories your client tells you. I can still recall, ten years on, the considerable detumescence on reading the ten-page faxed legal assault from the world’s most aggressive lawyers, Schillings, which was sent to me at 6pm on a Friday evening (Schillings I think invented that tactic, designed to destroy the adversary’s peace for an entire weekend). My subject, they said, had lied extensively about their client, who was at that time almost everywhere on the telly. Thankfully, a combination of libel insurance and a slam-dunk piece of new evidence from my subject resulted in an honourable withdrawal on both sides.
I asked Ivan Mulcahy what was the most important quality for a ghostwriter. ‘Loyalty,’ he answered, without hesitation. And the biggest pitfalls? ‘Oh, as for us all, greed and ego will bring down a good ghostwriter,’ he smiled. And perhaps also just plain exhaustion. The late Jennie Erdal worked for twenty years as the anonymous, secret ghostwriter for the publisher and author Naim Attallah, allegedly even going so far as to draft his love letters. Finally, she’d had enough and published Ghosting in 2004, spilling the beans on how she’d written all the novels and books the world had previously assumed to be the work of the maverick founder of The Oldie magazine and Quartet Press. When one of Erdal’s old university professors discovered how she’d been making her living, he declared that she was ‘no better than a common whore’.
So how about the other way round: does ghostwriting blunt the writer’s own pencil? The critic Cyril Connolly listed in Enemies of Promise the methods of earning a living which are detrimental to the serious writer: advertising, reviewing poetry, journalism, teaching – all these jobs he pooh-poohed as being as dangerous to the ambitious writer as his infamous pram in the hallway, because they dilute the writer’s focus. He didn’t mention ghostwriting and I’ve no doubt he would have disapproved; Cyril only really approved of white, male authors with private incomes.
But in fact, ghostwriting someone’s life is closer to writing a novel than you might think. The effective ghostwriter has to recognise and absorb the subject’s speech patterns, ways of thinking, mental habits. To present a client’s life to the reader, one has to draw him or her as authentically as you would a fictional character if you are to keep the reader at your side. There is a considerable creative satisfaction to be had from presenting a person on the page as they actually are in real life.
Philip Roth, in his 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, introduces us to his fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, for the first time. Zuckerman in this first outing is a young author of some well-reviewed short stories and he is visiting his hero, the writer E.I. Lonoff based, many say, on the writer Bernard Malamud. In the novel, Zuckerman begins to fantasise that the sensuous creative-writing student Amy whom he overhears attempting to seduce Lonoff is in fact Anne Frank, and in many ways the novel is an entirely literary exploration of the construction of character, whether it be Zuckerman’s fantasised Anne Frank or Henry James, or Roth’s own Lonoff/Malamud riff. For Philip Roth, the very act of writing summoned the ghost.
Is ghostwriting more prevalent now in book publishing than before? Probably, an inevitable outcome of the seemingly unstoppable fascination with celebrity. It’s no longer enough for Captain Tom to summon his indefatigable spirit and bravery in support of the NHS; it seems now we need to feel we know him too. And how better to do that than to sit down beside the fire with the cold wind blowing outside and his voice coming directly to us off the page?
As with most elements connected with the trade, the route in is shrouded with mystery and obfuscation. There are companies who advertise themselves as ghostwriting agencies, but they are often as impenetrable to the tyro ghost as those unlikely import/export businesses set up in the ’70s by MI6. Publishers and literary agents tend to have favoured ghosts, so the best thing you can probably do is write your own brilliant book, get an agent and a publisher along the way, and then build your portfolio from there.
Just make sure to remember to keep a low profile, keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth firmly shut.
Simon Petherick’s latest novel, Like Fire Unbound, was published in March 2021. He is currently ghosting the life of
We took last weekend out to pitch our tent in the grounds of Gladstone’s beautiful turreted house in Hawarden, north east Wales, for the Good Life Experience Autumn Camp. And what a pleasure and refresher it was.
The Good Life is a concept dreamed up by Charlie Gladstone, direct descendant of the Victorian Prime Minister, with his family and a wide range of eclectic, passionate collaborators. They’ve been running a small festival at Hawarden for a few years now, focussing on doing and making and creating rather than just sitting back with a pint and listening to bands (although they do a bit of that too). They wanted to create an opportunity to slip out of day-to-day tasks and responsibilities for a long weekend of exploration, and with this latest Camp they succeeded once again.
Between Friday and Sunday, we swam in the lily-filled lake; we pondered on whether Epicurus might have had the best of it amongst the Athenian Schools with Idler‘s Tom Hodgkinson and in-house academic Dr Mark Vernon; we listened to a simply gorgeous set of acoustic songs by Carwyn Ellis, effortlessly conjuring the Rio sound of Gilberto Gil and mixing that with Carwyn’s Welsh lyrics; we ate a feast of barbecued venison prepared by chefs James Golding from The Pig and Damian Clisby; we admired the passion and honesty of the signwriter Umberto (Robert) who talked to us of the years of struggle he’d faced to accept his own talent and achievements; we heard a truly fascinating talk by Professor Gavin Screaton, the head of medical science at Oxford University and the man who led and co-ordinated Oxford’s remarkable Covid vaccination success; we enjoyed Charlie Gladstone and Mark Shayler riffing on how to get the best out of people; we watched the dogshow on Sunday and applauded the winners.
There was plenty more. We drank lots of fine cider and beer, we lay in the sunshine and fell asleep, we noshed excellent homemade pizza. And just for two nights, we had the opportunity to forget work and duty and just let our minds potter about in whatever directions they chose. It was utterly lovely.