As it is the 50th anniversary of England winning the World Cup in 1966 we thought we would highlight a Scottish literary connection to England’s triumph. England Captain Bobby Moore’s autobiography “My soccer story” was ghost written by a Scotsman who would go onto to become a Booker Prize shortlisted author and be involved in high profile film projects. First published in April 1966 Moore’s autobiography was republished in October 1966 with new content about the World Cup win in July. The author was Scotsman Gordon Williams although his name does not appear in the book. Williams’ career tells us a lot about British literary culture in the second half of the last century and the projects writers would have to take on to make a living. This is the story of that career which brings together Williams’ two loves football and literature with a detour into cinema.
Gordon Williams was born in Paisley in 1934 the son of a police constable. Obsessed with football he also desperately wanted to be a writer. A great uncle William Williams had written a book “It can be done” about his experiences as a missionary in Venezuela. The presence of this book in his childhood home removed the mystery of authorship for Williams. He thought it can be done, I can be an author. He became a cub reporter with the Johnstone Advertiser but all the time he was working towards a bigger plan, getting a novel published by the time he was thirty. He almost made it when “The Last day of Lincoln Charles” was published in 1965. Alongside his newspaper and literary careers he was also writing to order. In 1962 he wrote a biography of Acker Bilk who was suddenly a big star thanks to “Stranger on the Shore”. Toward the middle of the decade he ghost wrote a number of books for Bobby Moore including the 1966 autobiography “My soccer story” as well as his newspaper column. He also ghosted books for Denis Law amongst other stars of the game.
For an autobiography by the captain of the team that had just won the World Cup Moore’s book is a very modest affair. “Bobby Moore My Soccer Story” is a slim 148 pages with little in the way of behind the scenes revelations ghost written as hack work by a young journalist keen to maintain a writing career. This is in complete contrast to present day autobiographies by star players. For Roy Keane’s first autobiography in 2002 the ghost Eamon Dunphy received £250,000 and was credited on the title page. Keane’s 2014 memoir was ghosted by the Booker Prize winning novelist Roddy Doyle. Williams had missed the football autobiography gravy train by at least twenty years
Over the next couple of years Williams would write a couple of paperback original thrillers as Jack Lang for £300 a time. In 1968 what is considered his best and most lasting work was published “From scenes like these”. The title is from Burns’ “Cotter’s Saturday night”. It was shortlisted for the first Booker Prize in 1969 along with novels by Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. P. H. Newby won but Williams’ novel is now regarded as a key Scottish novel written at a time when novels about contemporary Scotland were few and far between.
Williams’ career also crossed over into that other theatre of dreams the cinema. Earlier in his career he had written a novel “The man who had power over women” In a 1982 interview in the Glasgow Herald he said the title had come to him first, lit up on a cinema marquee. The book was sold to Hollywood for £27,000 and a film was made in 1970. Co-scripted by the Elgin born scriptwriter Allan Scott it differed greatly from the book and had so many changes from the script that Scott asked for his name to be taken off the film which was a flop. Williams’ follow up to “From Scenes Like These”, “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” was more successfully adapted for the cinema. Written in nine days with one eye on a film deal it was first planned as a film for Roman Polanski. It would eventually be filmed as “Straw Dogs” by Sam Peckinpah and be one of the most controversial films of the Seventies.
Along the way Williams had taken a day job as commercial manager at Chelsea FC. This brought him into contact with the team captain Terry Venables. They began a literary collaboration, Williams ghosting a biography of Venables and the two of them co-writing the football novel “They used to play on grass” and writing three novels about Hazell a Cockney private eye the basis for a TV series starring Nicholas Ball.
Reflecting on his twenty year career and the twenty six books he had written in the Glasgow Herald article Williams is philosophical about the setbacks in his career and hopeful about the future. Despite earning fairly large sums as a writer by 1982 he was broke his savings spent on an unrealised film project. He had recently been approached by Bill Forsyth to script the film that would become “Gregory’s Girl” but turned him down feeling he had bigger fish to fry. This might have been the project that took his career to another level combining his love of football with his ability to portray ordinary Scottish lives. Forsyth seemed very keen for him to be involved, Williams says he received sacksful of begging letters from the director about the project.
In fact Williams’ next project was a series of novels which his publisher felt combined Flashman, Le Carre, and Ragtime. Published in 1983 “Pomeroy an American diplomat” would be the only novel in the proposed series and the last novel so far to be published by Williams. Williams subsequently did some film and television work and journalism. When the critic and novelist D J. Taylor interviewed him for the Guardian in 2003 he said he had got bored writing novels. He was though he told Taylor close to finishing a novel called “Deadline for a ghost”. It has yet to be published.
Williams perhaps never quite reached the same heights as Bobby Moore did in his career but with a creative role in a successful film and television series and with “From scenes like these” one of the key Scottish post-war novels to his credit he had more than a few successes. As we look back to the events of the World Cup in 1966 it is also perhaps a good time to look back at Gordon Williams’ output. His 1973 novel “Walk don’t run” about a writer’s experiences in America and a Scottish set and football themed ghost story “The Horseshoe Inn” from 1976 especially reward investigation.