I was sorry to miss last week’s ghostbusting gig at the Hay-on-Wye festival when David Beckham’s surrogate-scribbler, actor-writer Tom Watt, joined two mates of mine, Paul Hayward (Sir Bobby Robson, Michael Owen) and Peter Burden (novelist-amanuensis of horseracing’s Francome and Pitman, and vet-thesps Hemmings and Phillips). Ghostwriting has a long literary history, but suddenly there’s a superabundant blight of it on the back pages; in my days on the desk at least we employed the strapline courtesy that the star performer ‘was talking to’ such and such a hack. No longer. Added insult to the reader these days is an uncertainty about who actually writes their own stuff. In fact, a select group are setting bespoke new sportswriting standards: well, a 1st XI could be led by long-established sparklers like cricket’s two Mikes, Brearley and Selvey, rugby’s Paul Ackford and Gerald Davies, followed by such green-neon talents as Stuart Barnes, Eddie Butler, Tony Cascarino, Gus Fraser, Steve James, Mark Nicholas, Derek Pringle (with Brian Moore, Alan Smith and a fair few others bristling on the bench). Latest unmissably stand-out is Mike Atherton’s stuff in the Sunday Telegraph. In lamentable contrast, some of the ghosted columns by current performers are execrable. For banal drivel, cricket’s Ashes tour in the winter reached rock bottom; stand by for further depths to be quarried during rugby’s World Cup this autumn. Poor ghosts. Why do sports editors bother?
On tour once, I came across a disgruntled Ian Botham. ‘What ails you, Beefy?’ I asked. ‘My ruddy ghost sends back such a daily load of crap,’ said the great man. I did a book in the 1980s with Ian. He returned the proofs unopened; I doubt he ever once opened the book itself. I did another with master-batsman Graham Gooch; by return the conscientious good fellow would fax back reams of improvement suggestions, plus pointed sharpeners to my shoddy punctuation. Ghost to founding superstar W.G. Grace was lively Grub Streeter Arthur Porritt, who despaired of the collaboration: ‘Getting material from Grace was almost heartbreaking. All he would say in recording some dazzling batting feat was “Then I went in and made 284.’’’ The Doc, however, did vet the copy and once took exception to the word ‘inimical’ by castigating Porritt: ‘Such a word cannot go in. Why, the fellows at Lord’s will keep asking: “Look here, WG, where on earth did you get that word from?’’’
Ghosts can affect results. Before the British Lions decider in Australia in 2001, by way of his Observer ghostwriter, mouthy chirper Austin Healey shamefully taunted Wallaby lineout greenhorn Justin Harrison as ‘a plod, an ape, a plank’. Harrison gloriously stole the two crucial lineout catches from Lions’ captain Martin Johnson, which won the Test and the series. Same place last winter, rookie England bowler Sajid Mahmood railed against captain Andrew Flintoff in ‘his’ Guardian column when he wasn’t given a bowl all day (on form, a perfectly obvious stroke of captaincy to me). Mahmood should have been dropped for his cheek. It reminded me of Edgbaston 1924 when, via his Empire News ghost, another Lancastrian, ‘Ciss’ Parkin, slagged off captain Arthur Gilligan for not giving him the new ball. ‘I’ll never again stand at mid-off feeling so cheaply humiliated,’ he said. Nor did he. Lord’s never even considered Parkin again. Like Healey and Mahmood four score years on, he blamed his ghost. On his deathbed in 1943, Parkin’s last words were: ‘I never said it; but will heaven still blame me?’