Ghosts of Christmas presents

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The Independent Online
GHOSTS and Christmas books have been associated in the public mind ever since Charles Dickens put Ebenezer Scrooge in touch with the paranormal in 1843. But in recent years the phantom figures are more often the authors of the books than characters found on the pages, as legions of ghost writers lurk behind the stars of sport to help them tell their tales.

This festive season the bookshop shelves are groaning under piles of sporting autobiographies, almost all of them ghosted. Rugby inspires the interpreted memoirs of Ieuan Evans, Brian Moore, Dean Richards, Rob Andrew and even young Mike Catt. Football fans can read the thoughts of such articulate figures as Tony Cottee, Peter Beardsley and Gary McAllister; Duncan Ferguson's has been unavoidably delayed but will be with us soon. Botham, Gower, Mansell, Christie, Venables . . . a Christmas choir full of faces smile angelically from the glossy covers. But what of the faces we don't see, the voices so studiously repressed? What is it like to be the ghost of a famous sports star?

"It's very hard work," according to Peter Jackson, the phantom behind Ieuan Evans's Bread of Heaven. "I'm not sure I'd do another." Our own Peter Corrigan, Jonathan Davies's spook, agreed. "I haven't met a ghost writer yet who didn't swear it would be the last one they would do - including myself," he admitted. "But what draws you in is the opportunity to go on a voyage of discovery, to get close to such individual players and rare talents."

Sometimes, as in the case of Corrigan and Davies, the genesis of a book lies in the friendship between subject and ghost; more often projects are put together by publishers or, as in the Evans/Jackson collaboration, by the player's manager.

For the subject of the book, the attraction - apart from the financial consideration - is the opportunity to reflect on past experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, and attempt to put them in perspective. Ieuan Evans, although initially self- conscious, soon warmed to the process. "I had some trepidation at first over recalling some of the bad times," Evans said, "but I also found that I enjoyed recapping things, even some things that I had forgotten. All Jacko had to do was light the blue touch-paper and - boof! - I'd babble away."

Jackson and Evans met regularly for two- to three-hour sessions which the writer both taped and noted. "It was fortunate that I knew Ieuan's career backwards," Jackson, the Daily Mail's chief rugby correspondent, said. "And the fact that he works a mile away from where I live certainly helped."

There can be a problem with relying solely on the first-person voice of the subject: it is difficult for a sports star to put him or herself in context without sounding puffed-up. Peter Corrigan, who was the Ghost's ghost when he wrote Martin Peters's story in 1966, explained. "You can't have the subject say certain things without it seeming stilted. For example, for Jonathan to say: 'Around this time I was generally recognised as the greatest outside-half in the world' sounds ridiculous. But I can say that, so I split each chapter into two parts: my voice followed by his." Peter Jackson used the same technique in Bread of Heaven, introducing his own narrative, and quotes from players and observers of the game: the outsiders' view followed by the insider's view.

So much for the mechanics. The selling power of any sports autobiography relies not just on the magnitude of the star, but on how much they are prepared to reveal: people are not going to shell out pounds 15 for sanitised, Hello!-style reminiscence. Rugby fans, their appetites whetted by the rush of post-World- Cup books, want their fix of politics and intrigue, as Jackson and Evans know. But there has to be a balance between telling the truth and seeking out controversy. According to Jackson: "Ieuan wanted to be sure that I wasn't going to sensationalise things for the sake of a few headlines. I feel he has told it how it was. He is brutally frank about the shambolic Welsh tours of Australia and New Zealand."

Evans played down his criticism of the Welsh rugby hierarchy, claiming to speak with the passion of a follower of the game rather than the status of a superstar. "I felt that if things had gone amiss," as he delicately put it, "then I was entitled to my opinion as a fan of Welsh rugby, like any Joe Bloggs Welsh rugby supporter. There were some things I couldn't pass by. If I did I would have been hiding from the issues. It's not the kind of thing that's going to arouse great controversy anyway, just a couple of laughs."

All the same, there were areas to tiptoe around. Jackson knew that the book belonged to Ieuan Evans; he knew as well that he was working as an autobiographer, not a journalist. "Of course there were one or two things that as a journalist I wished he had gone into in rather more detail," Jackson said. For instance? "Well, the situation with the British Lions in 1989 when they were haggling for money over their trip to South Africa. But I think that Ieuan had a shoulder injury at that time, so maybe he wasn't involved after all . . .".

A little discretion is a useful quality in a ghost writer. But more important is the ability to convey the subject's tone while sprucing up their vocabulary and syntax. Evans is pleased. "I think my voice comes through well," he said, adding modestly, "at least, that's what a couple of close friends have said."

But too much time concentrating on the subject's tone can threaten the ghost's own personality. The Daily Telegraph football correspondent, Henry Winter, is at work on Kenny Dalglish's autobiography, to be published next year. "I spend such a lot of time with him," Winter confided, "that when I get home my wife has to tell me to put the Scottish accent away." Dalglish, so dour in public, is said by his ghost to be exceptional company in private, articulate and gifted with a photographic memory. But, as Winter said, "capturing the lilt in the voice, the twinkle in the eye, pinning those things down in print - that's the difficult thing".

Winter is actually working on Dalglish's second autobiography. The author of the first, Ken Gallagher, is the most effective Scottish ghost since Banquo, having also assisted Messrs Hansen, Nicholas, Souness and Hateley into print. As you might expect, the chief football writer of the Glasgow Herald has the technique down to a fine art: "As a journalist you know what parts of their story are going to be strong, and you can guide them that way. Equally, you know that there are some areas which are sensitive, so you coax them. You don't say 'Hey! What about that, then?' You go round about to it."

What readers demand above all from a sports biography is how it really felt to be there, the elusive "tingle factor". Sports stars are famously inarticulate in the aftermath of triumph or defeat: over-the-moon syndrome or dyspeptic parrot disease. That the ghost writer has to evoke emotions experienced years earlier increases the challenge. "You have to have an empathy," Gallagher reckoned. "You have to have been involved. If you know them when they are young, you get to know how they feel, and that makes it an easier road to travel."

Gallagher's latest partner is Duncan Ferguson, fresh out of Barlinnie jail and not renowned for his forthcoming nature. "Duncan doesn't really speak to journalists," his ghost said. "I think he's had a bit of a raw deal with the tabloids." But Gallagher has been a spectral presence around the striker since his earliest days in the game, and earned the young man's trust.

He is not about to betray it, either, and refuses to be drawn on whether the book will discuss Ferguson's time in jail. You sense that, for Gallagher, the role of ghost writer is akin to that of guide, mentor, kindly uncle. "He's not just a big silly boy," he says of his charge. "He's a man with strong views." Ken, the friendly ghost.

Gift ideas: Seven ghost writers select their favourite sports books of the year Interviews by Stephen Brenkley

Peter Ball

After the riches of 1994, this year did not boast a similar quality and range of books about football. But Left Foot Forward by Garry Nelson (Headline pounds 12.99) was outstanding. The sub-title, "A Year In The Life of a Journeyman Footballer", was a perfect summation. The stories of the ordinary professionals and their problems and failures and worries have always intrigued me more than those about winners. Nelson's book captures the essence of shattered dreams. Failure has so many guises, winning is often just winning. There were many laughs in Mrs Paul Peschisolido's book about life at Birmingham City, Brady Plays the Blues (Pavilion, pounds 14.99), but perhaps she should have kept a diary. Harry Pearson's book The Far Corner, a trail through football in the North-east, was as funny as it was fascinating.

Peter Ball was the editor/ghost of 'A Year In The Life of Alex Ferguson - The Manager's Diary' (Virgin pounds 12.99).

Frank Keating

Much of what we call research into books about sportsmen is actually cribbing. So much has been written before about so many that saying anything new can be difficult. That is why we did the book with Graham Gooch as we did, to try to lend perspective. The method is similarly used in a book that has had hardly any publicity, The Skipper: A Biography of Wilf Wooller by Andrew Hignell (Limlow pounds 16.99) and it works extremely well. Two books that managed to add to the sum of our understanding of their subjects were Cantona: The Red and The Black by Ian Ridley (Victor Gollancz pounds 14.99) and one I especially admired, David Gower: A Man Out Of Time by Rob Steen (Gollancz pounds 16.99). You felt you learnt something apart from the usual run through from one hundred to another.

Frank Keating wrote 'Gooch: My Autobiography' (Collins Willow pounds 15.99), a semi-ghosted account in which he also gives his analysis of events.

Leonard Stall

Most people selecting a cricket book containing statistics would probably nominate Wisden, but the volume I find continually useful is the Benson and Hedges Cricket Year, edited by David Lemmon. The 13th edition was astonishingly well-thumbed. The 14th edition has not been out long and I've already used it and found it engrossing. As a statistical record of the previous season in England - not to mention in other parts of the world - it is brilliantly ordered. The quick turnaround after the close of the season is tremendous and it is all but free of mistakes, a real effort considering the short production time. The latest edition has the usual wealth of easy-to-find information on how every player fared. As a whole it is enormously helpful if you are writing about cricket, and extremely enjoyable.

Leonard Stall ghosted 'The Quest for the Ultimate Grand Slam: Mike Catt's Year' (Mainstream pounds 12.99).

Sean Magee

When bloodstock prices in the United States exploded in the Eighties, horse racing attracted people who thought there were financial killings to be made. This, and its after-effects, became known as the Blue Grass Bubble, and it is against that background that Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach (Henry Holt) is set. It tells about the fate of the fine horse Alydar, the only beast ever to finish second in all three races in the US Triple Crown. Alydar, who lost out on all three occasions to Affirmed, was a stallion insured for $36.5m (pounds 24m) when found dead in his box in 1990. He was owned by Calumet Farm, which is one of the great studs in the US. Auerbach's investigative tale has pace and detail. McIlvanney on Horseracing (Mainstream pounds 14.99) is full of Hugh McIlvanney's wit and wisdom.

Sean Magee ghosted 'Lester: The Autobiography of Lester Piggott' (Partridge Press pounds 16.99).

Richard Simmons

For more than four decades, Dan Jenkins has written about golf. He watched the latter days of Ben Hogan, he was there when the Arnold Palmer era started and when a chunky crew cut lad called Jack Nicklaus beat Palmer in a play-off for the 1962 US Open. Jenkins played with a president. All this and more is contained in Fairways & Greens (Doubleday), a collection spanning his career. Jenkins has that knack of making the past seem better than the present and writes with verve and sparkle. He is funny and because he played so well himself he also conveys the obstacles facing the tournament pro. It is a volume to be cherished, because from Augusta to St Andrews Jenkins has seen them all. As a writer, he plays off scratch.

Richard Simmons ghosted 'A Swing for Life' (Weidenfeld and Nicolson pounds 17.99) for Nick Faldo and 'Lessons from the Golf Greats' (Collins Willow pounds 16.99) for David Leadbetter.

James Allen

Some sportsmen transcend the event which makes them famous. Muhammad Ali was one, of course, and that shines through in Muhammad Ali: 30 years, essentially a photographic study by Howard Bingham, which I saw for the first time this year. But another who performed more recently was Ayrton Senna. After he died there was a rush to chronicle his life. The books told us about what he had achieved, but nothing at all about his country. And yet it was his Brazilian-ness which made him. The essence of the man and his country are captured in The Death of Ayrton Senna by Richard Williams (Viking pounds 12.50). Williams conveys what made Senna such an extraordinary human being. The book was not rushed out and Williams comes up with the goods.

James Allen ghosted 'Nigel Mansell - My Autobiography: The People's Champion' (Collins Willow pounds 16.99).

Dave Harrison

Just out in paperback, Clough: The Autobiography (Corgi pounds 4.99) transcends football. It is a gripping story, partly because of the man involved and partly because it spans such a long time in the game; I couldn't put it down. Here we have this fellow picking coal off the slagheaps as a youngster, making it as a leading centre-forward. But what a different game it was in the Fifties - as he shows. Then it brings you right into football as it is conducted and played now. Incidents he relates such as the contract dispute Forest had can't help but lead you to make comparisons. Maybe the most important footballing document of this year is Alex Ferguson's book The Manager's Diary (Virgin pounds 12.99). It details from the inside one of football's most significant incidents last season - Eric Cantona's lunge into the crowd at Selhurst Park - and the whole story is related well.

Dave Harrison ghosted 'Alan Shearer's Diary of a Season' (Virgin pounds 12.99).