Well, lots of things, obviously. My mother’s maiden name, Colin Cowdrey’s highest first-class score
(look it up if you’re interested in accessing my online bank account) and when – and where – I was
born, because without these precious bits of information, I wouldn’t be allowed a life in today’s
digital world so ferociously fixated on codes and passwords.
I’ve also got (somewhere) lots of certificates suggesting that I possess a wealth of academic
knowledge, dating back to what were then ‘O’ levels. Which means I can also remember the
irritatingly catchy Sam Cooke hit, What A Wonderful World, in which he lists all the subjects he did at
school but can’t now remember a thing about.
It starts with History – His-tor-ee. Actually, I happen to be quite good on History, but I’m shoulder to
shoulder with Sam when it comes to Bi-ol-o-gee and indeed Trigonometry (which I was too stupid
even to be allowed to study). But seriously, who can claim any sort of mastery in subjects they did at
school, unless they went on to study them at university or use them professionally? Ohm’s Law,
anyone? The Defenestration of Prague? The Sieve of Eratosthenes?
But there must be something I know about that could be useful to me as a writer?
Well, as a poet I know about rhyme and metre, and can knock you off a presentable sonnet on
pretty much any subject (not Trigonometry, though). Indeed, for my latest crime novel, Hangman, I
did just that, embedding a clue – or is it a red-herring? – in a passionate love poem discovered in a
callow first collection by one of the suspects who happens to be a poet.
But that, I grant you, is fairly niche.
And then there’s cricket, about which I do know an awful lot. Enough to burst into irritable laughter
when authors who don’t try to get away with a cricket scene in a novel. If only they’d asked me, or
someone else who knew the game, they wouldn’t commit such embarrassing errors as having the
wicket-keeper standing up to the stumps to a tear-away fast bowler, or muddling up the most basic
My first crime story, Bodyline, revolves around a murder that takes place on a cricket pitch during
play, and the fielding positions are absolutely crucial – and correct, of course!
But that, too, is pretty niche.
I might get a commission to ghost a memoir for a cricketer; but then he – or she – would know even
more about the game than I do. As for poets – I could write a biography of one, but no poet worth
her – or his – salt would ever consider employing a ghost writer. (They all think they’re geniuses.)
So, to come back to the original question, What do I actually know that would be of any help to me
as a writer/ghostwriter? Precious little, would seem to be the honest answer.
But I’ve done all right so far, haven’t I? Perhaps ignorance is bliss?
I can tell you, it isn’t bliss. Ignorance is very alarming.
My first big commission, to write a biography of the Victorian cricketer W.G.Grace, came about by
chance. I was certainly no expert on either Grace or Victorian cricket. My proposal, thrown together
at very short notice, contained every last fact I could cobble together. It was a very hair-raising
passage of play, because by this stage I really wanted the job. It was only once I’d signed the
contract that ignorance became my friend. Because I didn’t ‘know’ all the things I should have
known, I set out to explore for myself, not simply regurgitate the accepted truths about the great
man that were the stock of all the previous biographies. It made for a much better book.
Writers, if they’re honest, will often admit to short-comings turning into blessings. In a recent
interview Jeremy Clarkson looks back on his amazingly successful career as an auto journalist, tv
presenter and writer, having more or less invented a new version of the genre. The reason why? His
ignorance of how the damn things worked. He didn’t have a clue about what went on under the
bonnet. It was all ‘witchcraft’ to him. Which meant he couldn’t join the herd of car nerds whose
copy was ‘all about fan belts’. Of course he now knows pretty much everything there is to know
about what goes on under the bonnet; but he learnt on the job, a job which he was redefining as he
Which brings me finally to helicopters – about which, needless to say, I know absolutely nothing,
beyond what I gleaned from the opening scene of Spectre. Tricky things to fly at the best of times,
let alone when you have Daniel Craig trying to rip your head off having just decanted a major villain
from the door into the massed Mexican extras milling in the square below.
But no doubt by the time I’ve written up the current chapter, I’ll have got my head round the cyclic
pitch control and the antitorque pedals and will hopefully sound as though I’ve been flying the things
Which of course my client has.