The narrative of Andy Croft’s verse-novel is basically Hamlet relocated from Elsinore to a dingy flat and playing out against a backdrop of left-wing politics and the Spanish civil war instead of the wasp’s nest of court intrigue. Oh, and written in Pushkin sonnets as opposed to the iambic pentameter. But apart from that, we’re definitely in Hamlet territory as reluctant hero Tod Prince (geddit?) struggles against the nefarious machinations of Claud King (geddit? part two), tries to romance the headstrong Fee (geddit? part three) and deals with unwanted ghostly visitations.
Tod’s a down-on-his-luck writer who hopes his long-gestating biography of 1930s poet Rex Dedman – who, as his name would suggest, is now deceased – will be a critical and financial success. Claud, publisher and rival for the affections of Rex’s wife Trudi, is working on his own memoir and tries to coerce Tod into a version of events designed to bolster his revisionist take on Rex’s life and smooth over a particularly gnarly secret that both men were party to back when they were fighting to protect Spain from Franco’s fascism.
Different stories emerge as first Rex then Trudi visit Tod from beyond the grave, with each character’s version of events taking on a different colouration (think Rashomon conflated with Land and Freedom) but amidst the deceptions, betrayals and bed-hopping, who’s telling the truth and how is Tod meant to arrive at a definitive narrative?
Ghost Writer is an absolute tour de force. By turns a mystery, a love story, a ghost story, a war-time thriller, a political treatise and a satire on the literati, Croft covers more ground in 140 sonnets than most novelists could manage in a 600-page door-stopper. The fact that he keeps the whole thing ticking along so wittily and so readably is the clincher.
See below for Neil Fulwood’s review of Andy Croft’s later book 1948
Q. What do you get if you cross George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico?
A. Andy Croft’s 1948
Granted, that’s a glib opener for a review, barely scratching the surface of this inventive verse-novel. Let’s dig a little deeper: imagine a complete up-ending of Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith is a journeyman copper, O’Brien his world-weary boss, and Julia so impossibly chaste that there’s barely a suggestion of sexcrime on young Winston’s radar. Moreover, Croft swaps Orwell’s dystopian future for a rigorously imagined alternative history where a Labour-Communist coalition is the ruling party, the Royal Family have made a swift departure for the colonies, and America is threatening economic sanctions. Nonetheless, London is hosting the 1948 Olympics but murder, dockyard strikes and a glamorous Russian agent threaten to disrupt the opening ceremony.
Okay, that’s the Nineteen Eighty-Four part of it. Onto the Ealing: imagine Passport to Pimlico as a film noir directed by Edward Dmytryk or Jules Dassin, all fog and shadows, car chases, dames, handguns, and the occasional cosh applied to the back of the head.
Now take one final aesthetic leap and imagine the whole wacky confection drizzled with humour and served up as a sequence of 150 Pushkin sonnets. Picking perhaps the most obscure sonnet form available, Croft dazzles with his wit and wordplay, a feat made more impressive in that he doesn’t just narrate the entire seven chapter novel in verse: the dedication, contents page and acknowledgements are also sonnets. This is the kind of showmanship that could easily have been too clever for its own good, but 1948 remains entertaining and immensely readable throughout. If you’re a fan of Orwell, Ealing, contemporary poetry, or just plain curious about the kind of eccentric talent that throws all of these cultural touchstones into the blender, this is essential reading.
Neil Fulwood has published three books on film. He is a member of Nottingham Poetry Society.