A date in 1997. A long-deferred date. Deferred for far too long. It is the date I am – finally – sitting down to start writing my biography of the famous Victorian cricketer, W.G.Grace. I have been researching it for months. I have even been to Australia to follow the great man’s footsteps through various Australian archives (tough work, but someone has to do it). I have filled many dossiers with pages of notes. I have gathered a library of books, which now spread out around my desk, marked with multi-coloured post-it notes. Several are already open, in preparation for Chapter 1.
Of course, I haven’t read everything; I haven’t followed up every lead; I haven’t tracked down every last innings in the most extraordinary career ever seen in the game. But I have done an awful lot of work. I may know more about W.G.Grace than anyone else on the planet (not, as I discovered later, true; but I was in the top five). And now is the moment to start getting the story down.
I’m a touch-typist – something I owe my mother, who gave me an Olivetti Lettera 22 and covered up all the letters so I had to learn. So, there I was, both hands raised like a concert pianist about to crash into a Rachmaninoff concerto.
But instead of the spate of triumphant notes, the waterfall of wonderfully persuasive words, there was nothing. Not a sausage. Indeed my fingers were limp as chipolatas. I looked out of the window – specially chosen to have as dull and undistracting view as possible. I looked at my empty coffee mug. I looked back at the screen, which was now beginning to throb whitely like a really bad migraine.
I was stumped.
If I say that was the very worse morning of my entire writing life, I am probably not exaggerating. The chances are, W.G. himself was born with less fuss than my opening paragraph. By lunchtime I had got him born, given him two parents, and four grandparents, and I was a wreck. Never have a dozen or so prosaic sentences seemed so leaden, so drainingly unenticing. As the nearby church clock struck one, I got up from my desk and tottered downstairs. I wanted to walk straight round the corner to my local, drown my sorrows, and then, aflame with Dutch courage, ring up my publishers and tell them I couldn’t do it.
But I did. Over the next few months what I wrote would become a large and well received biography, which took me to a prize-giving ceremony where I did actually meet the man who knew more about Grace than I did: we shared the prize. But I didn’t get there on my own. I didn’t use a ghost, but I did have a mentor, the bestselling social historian, David Kynaston. David was also a cricket buff and kindly offered to read my work as I wrote it. I would send a batch of chapters and every fortnight or so we would discuss them in hour-long telephone conversations. These gave me huge motivation and always left me eager to get on and write more. I owe David more than I can say.
Because writing a book is daunting, there’s no getting away from that fact. And there’s absolutely no shame in getting the help that works for you to get the damn thing written. Any client of mine will be assured of the deepest empathy, because I’ve been there, stared at the blank screen, and ultimately beaten it. And I will do my damnedest to help anyone I work with break through to the book they want to see with their name on the cover.