Robert Harris IS the ghost(writer), Part 2. Disclaimers Unlimited

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    15th June 2010


    Harris’s first disclaimer:“I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.”



    Using the Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited quote above, Harris immediately puts down a writer’s detachment marker; all the better to avoid being sued.

    Like Chinese whispers, Harris’s tale then moves, changes, even heads in the opposite direction through its seeming consistency. We notice a former foreign secretary telling the ghostwriter that Lang was likely signed up to the CIA while at Cambridge; we then learn that his wife was the US spy. Witnesses around the death scene of the first ghostwriter seem to “know” things about tides, bodies and lights on a beach. We never quite find out what.

    This is not to imply that Harris is unsure of his own beliefs or of his book’s purpose. He is sure all right. We KNOW what the book’s author thinks in his disappointment over Tony Blair.  But it is to suggest that he is mind-bending, brainwashing to a degree which shows that even today the pen is mightier than the sword. Plant an idea. Water and feed it. Then leave it alone and it will sprout majestically.

    Yes, he does allow the Lang Blair side to be aired, but only when the former PM is under threat of legal charges, and usually for the effect of showing the manipulative powers of Lang Blair. Harris implies that the politician uses a familiar well-honed device, for which few of us Brits now fall. And rightly so he implies, and at times states through his book’s characters.

    Admitting, by way of the voice of his ghostwriter character and others in the book that it is difficult if not impossible to get to the bottom of the man, the implication is clear: the former prime minister of the book, and therefore in real life, is hollow, shallow, unprincipled, gullible, self-serving, weak. Never any of the opposite. He is to be pitied or distrusted, even resented rather than admired.


    And, lest we forget, the disclaimers keep popping up.

    At the start of each chapter Harris uses a sentence or paragraph on ghostwriting. Usually fairly innocuous, they could have been copied and pasted from the internet.

    For instance, Chapter 12 – “The book is not a platform for the ghost to air their views on anything at all.” Chapter 15  – “Authors need ghosts who will not challenge them, but will simply listen to what they have to say and understand why they did what they did”. And Chapter 17 – “A ghost must expect no glory.”

    Using these bland headings, and believe me these three are not as bland as the rest, Harris lays a trap for the gullible reader. We are invited to accept that the writer, Harris and his alter-ego the unnamed ghostwriter both practise what they preach. In fact in this book, which I contend is his effort at writing Tony Blair’s life (and even, shamefully, death) Harris does little else than air his views on everything, challenging the author and expecting the glory for this uncovering of his disturbing “truths”.

    But there are many clever literary moments too.  Some moving, some disconcerting.  His descriptive eye is good at setting atmosphere. I’ll do Harris the justice of pointing these up from time to time and in a later post. He IS a good writer, as noted here (part 1)


    A self-justifying tone leaps off the pages to remind readers of the genuine, principled intentions of the unpoliticised ghostwriter, and ditto most other faction/fiction writers that come to mind. Not from them could there ever be any malice aforethought. Heaven forfend!

    This is a touch overdone, Mr Harris. Your alter-ego is showing.

    Still, as a wise man once said – “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (Albert Einstein). Yet another wise owl said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail” (Abraham Maslow).

    The main issue I have with this book is that it plays to the anti-Iraq war, anti-Blair gallery, whilst pretending it is being even-handed. That, and the invitation to accept that in the end the former PM of the tale got his just, fatal desserts. No lateral thinking required here then, eh?

    True, Harris’s ghost character does occasionally display some human empathy with the book’s former PM. Do forgive me if I feel this is to better reflect the humanity and generosity of the ghostwriter (and his alter-ego) than the human qualities of the former PM character, or indeed of any actual character that might come to mind.

    An example of this – where Lang hears that the ICC are to investigate him for “war crimes” and the British government will “co-operate fully”  – Harris invites the reader to feel as does his ghostwriter – “unmoved”.

    Lang: “I refuse to be intimidated”, he said, with an upward tilt of his chin. “I refuse to be made a scapegoat. I refuse to be distracted from my work combating Aids, poverty and global warming. For that reason, I propose to travel now to Washington to carry on my schedule as planned. To everyone watching in the United Kingdom and throughout the world, let me make one thing perfectly clear. As long as I have breath in my body I shall fight terrorism wherever it has to be fought, whether it be on the battlefield, or – if necessary – in the courts. Thank you.”

    Ignoring the shouted questions – ‘When are you going back to Britain, Mr Lang?’ ‘Do you support torture, Mr Lang?’ – he turned and strode away, the muscles of his broad shoulders flexing beneath his handmade suit, his trip of bodyguards fanned out behind him. A week ago I would have been impressed, as I had been by his speech in New York after the London suicide bomb, but now I was surprised at how unmoved I felt. It was like watching some great actor in the last phase of his career, emotionally overspent, with nothing left to draw on but technique.” (pg 137/138)

    We got the message, Mr Harris. Loud and clear.

    Still, buy Harris’s book, if you must. It’s entertaining given its own strictures.

    Click to buy ‘The Ghost’, by Robert Harris

    Or you could always pre-order the real political life story, here at Amazon –

    “A Journey: My Political Life” by Tony Blair, out September 2010

    Earlier post: ‘ ROBERT HARRIS is the ghost(writer), Part 1

    Part 3 to follow. If the ghost doesn’t get me first.

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