Ghost in the Machine
Know what guys, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that while it’s only April the most talked about piece in literary journalism for this year has already been written. Titled Ghosting, it’s a long memoir piece – running to just under 27,000 words - published as the cover story of the 6th March issue of the London Review of Books. Raised some dust, it did. Scottish author and contributing editor Andrew O’Hagan revealed - for the first time - what it was like to be the ghostwriter for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Julian and WikiLeaks are no stranger to Bangladesh, when back in December 2010 we all thumbed through all those juicy US embassy cables re us. My favourite ones, I have to say, revolved around some of the shenanigans of RAB.
What is a ghostwriter? A struggling author typing away for some megalomaniac? A poet meeting the demand of some despot’s desire to wax poetic? The overwhelming number of them are professionals. However the ghostwriter in this case is no struggling artist. Andrew O’Hagan is an established figure in the literary world; in 2003, he was selected as one of Granta’s elite 20 Best of Young British Novelists. Prizes, praises and accolades followed. In the piece, Andrew drew comparisons with Alex Haley (ghosted Malcolm X’s autobiography), Ted Sorensen (JF Kennedy), and H.P. Lovecraft (Harry Houdini). So in 2011, when the phone rang and he was offered the role by his publisher (Canongate), his interest was piqued. The offer was to ghostwrite the memoir of Julian, who had just signed a contract for a healthy $2.5m, offered collectively by the publishers – Canongate in the UK and Knopf USA headed by Sonny Mehta.
Vaughn Smith, the founder of the Frontline Club in London, which aims to champion independent journalism by networking with reporters across the globe, was one of Julian’s sureties. Smith had offered his country residence – Ellingham Hall – to Julian and his crew. Mind you, this was the time when there was still a halo about the WikiLeaks founder, with lots of support and celebrity endorsements. Not surprising, in the piece we come across some big names: Alan Rusbridger, Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Tony Benn, Jemima Khan, Bianca Jagger, the billionaire financier Matthew Mellon (who choppers onto the front lawn and then sends Savile Row suits for Julian), and many more. Just like Smith, all had either declared their allegiance to him or believed in his work of leaking – among other ones – US diplomatic traffic cables.
But Julian had other things in mind.
‘All memoir is prostitution’, Julian declared to Andrew at the beginning of the project. Defiant, the Scotsman carried on, making earnest attempts to get Julian to focus on the book, but alas the whole thing falls apart after six incredibly trying months. By then, a lot of the supporters, including Smith, had gone off the genius hacker (third greatest in the world, as per his own assertion) amid rape allegations coming thick and fast from Sweden.
One aspect that keeps recurring in the piece is the sheer size of Julian’s ego. And his weirdness in the eyes of Andrew: "I made lunch every day and he'd eat it, often with his hands, and then lick the plate." Julian not only comes across as a man obsessed with himself (narcissism would be a mild description) but also extremely paranoid and insecure. Julian’s incessant need to lecture everyone on Chomsky and Voltaire hardly endears him to such a company of highly literate men and women. The passage below should suffice to give an idea:
A meeting at Ellingham Hall attended by Mehta and others was excruciating. Sonny had to sit for two hours while Julian lectured him about power, corruption, the police state and the truth about publishing. The editor-in-chief of Knopf said almost nothing.
At Andrew’s flat, Julian approached the meeting with the publisher Verso bigwigs (Anderson, Ali and Wilmers) with the same attitude. Quelle horreur? Perhaps they saw a bigger potential in him – with WikiLeaks empowered as the undercover platform subversive of American power, dominance and manipulation, as the disruptive agent of transparence and openness. For Andrew it was clear from the beginning and he puts it so eloquently:
Those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the United Kingdom under Thatcher and Blair, those of us who lived through the Troubles and the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the deregulation of the City, and Iraq, believed that exposing secret deals and covert operations would prove a godsend. When WikiLeaks began this process in 2010, it felt, to me anyhow, but also to many others that this might turn out to be the greatest contribution to democracy since the end of the Cold War.
Sadly for all of us, Julian kinda blew the last chance saloon.
Apart from the quality of the writing and the startling content, what’s remarkable about this story, a sort of a sub-text not getting much play here in London, is the fact that Andrew chose not to cash in. He was offered ridiculously large sums as advance, only if he co-opted with the book, which Canongate ultimately published later in 2011, in spite of legal threats from Julian, calling it Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography. One is curious: is it because this behaviour is expected of an author, i.e., a writer shall never compromise integrity? What would have been said had Andrew laughed all the way to the bank?
Andrew has maintained an admirable public silence about it. I saw him on stage with - amongst others - Pankaj Mishra as part of Folio Prize Fiction Festival at the British Library. This was only after a couple days of Andrew’s piece being published in the LRB. The topic of discussion was “On Context” and even though the audience was thirsting for it, Andrew never did veer away from the subject matter to bring in Ghosting, maintaining a noble discreetness.
Follow this link to read one of the best pieces of non-fiction you’ll come across this year: www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n05/andrew-ohagan/ghosting