MARK McCRUM was born in Cambridge, where his father was an academic. He grew up and went to school in Kent and Berkshire and after a nine month ‘gap year’ teaching at a multiracial school in Botswana returned to Cambridge to study English at the University. On graduating, he spent nine months in advertising, first as an executive, then a copywriter. He didn’t find working for others easy and left to do his own thing. For several years he supported himself in unlikely ways (video games salesman, street caricaturist, Father Christmas) while trying to forge a career as a writer and painter. After a seriously unfocused period, which involved attempts at everything from writing TV scripts to drawing cartoons for newspapers, he restricted himself to painting watercolours and writing a single play – The Swap, which ran for six weeks at the Boulevard Theatre, Soho, and was favourably reviewed in a couple of national newspapers. As a result of this success he acquired an agent, who encouraged him while he wrote two more plays which were never performed.
At the age of thirty he got an evening job managing a cinema and spent the days writing a novel. This was submitted to six publishers, all of whom rejected it. One, however, liked the writing style enough to commission a travel book about contemporary Southern Africa. In May 1992, Mark flew to Cape Town and began a new life as a published travel writer.
Happy Sad Land, about this journey through South Africa and Botswana in what turned out to be the last year of apartheid, was published to favourable reviews in January 1994. In the same month Mark exhibited a collection of landscape watercolours in a London gallery, The Cadogan in Knightsbridge. In September 1994, with a new book commission, he flew to Sydney and spent seven months travelling around Australia, meeting Sydney socialites, Republican cattle-ranchers, Indo-Chinese immigrants, Perth millionaires and desert Aboriginals, amongst others. This journey was described in No Worries, published in January 1996.
His next commission was to ghostwrite Jack and Zena, the true-life story of a mixed-race couple from Leeds (she of Pakistani origin) who eloped to escape an arranged marriage and ended up on the run from Zena’s murderous family. After many vicissitudes they were rescued from hiding by the hostage John McCarthy (see Jack and Zena section for more). When this was finished, Mark embarked on a third travel book. From July to November 1997 he travelled round Ireland on public transport, meeting teetotal IRA men, inebriated Anglo-Irish gentry, Frank the goat-catcher and Dana the aspiring President, amongst others. The Craic was published the following November.
Despite having produced four books, making ends meet was still a problem. In February 1999 he agreed to write a TV-tie in for an unusual-sounding programme which had been conceived to mark the end of the century (and millennium): a contemporary family were to live for three months as Victorians while being filmed constantly. This was 1900 House, one of the UK’s first ventures into ‘Reality TV’. The programme was a success and the book a bestseller. The following year Mark was invited to write the book for an altogether more ambitious millennial experiment – Castaway 2000. This was another hugely popular programme, making regular front-page national headlines for its first five months. The project went interestingly awry, and the task of documenting what happened behind the scenes became ever more vexed and fascinating (see Castaway section). The book Castaway became another bestseller and Mark was offered the job of writing about Robbie Williams on tour round Europe. The resulting book, Somebody Someday, went straight to no. 1 in the bestsellers, then slipped to No 3, where it stayed for twenty weeks.
After the success of Somebody Someday, Mark took a break from writing for a while to concentrate on his other love, watercolour painting. This led in due course to two more one-man shows, at the Saltwater Gallery in Norfolk and Gallery 37 in London’s Notting Hill (see Paintings section). Then, one fine day, disturbed as he tried to read the papers in a local café by the yap-yap of a businessman phoning round his suppliers on his mobile phone, he conceived the idea of a guide to contemporary etiquette. Too late. When he pitched to publishers he found that several others, with altogether better credentials, had had the same idea. Sure enough, in the Christmas season of 2005 there was a string of etiquette-for-the-new-century books.
With Robbie royalties now running low, Mark agreed to work with an old friend, Adam Jacot de Boinod, ghost-writing a book about unusual foreign words, which Adam had sold to Penguin in proposal form. This became The Meaning of Tingo, which took off in 2005 as a surprising Christmas bestseller.
Around the same time Mark was approached by Bruce Parry, presenter of Tribe, a new series about remote indigenous people, to work with him on a book to accompany the programmes (see Tribe section). Meanwhile, he’d had the idea of giving his contemporary etiquette idea a global dimension and Going Dutch In Beijing, the International Guide to Doing the Right Thing was conceived. This proved much more appealing to publishers and he soon found himself signing a contract with Profile Books, who published this lighthearted guide to world etiquette in Autumn 2007. The hardback was followed by a paperback, and no less than seven foreign language editions in, respectively, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Poland, Portugal and Brazil. Meanwhile, there was a sequel to The Meaning of Tingo to be ghosted, Toujours Tingo.
The success of these ‘Christmas books’ led to yet another idea, co-written with Sunday Times journalist Danny Danziger. The Thingummy is an exploration of those everyday objects we ought to know the names for but don’t – from the groove above your lip (philtrum) to that thingummy on the end of your shoelace (aglet). This was published by Doubleday in autumn 2008, and the following year in the US under the title The Whatchamacallit. Mark’s Christmas sequence was concluded in autumn 2009 with the ghosted third in the Tingo sequence, The Wonder of Whiffling, which moved on to consider surprising words in the English language.
In May 2010 Mark was put in touch with the team behind Walking with the Wounded, the charity that ended up getting four seriously wounded soldiers to make the dangerous trek across the freezing Arctic ice cap to the North Pole. The expedition received lots of publicity, partly because Prince Harry became the charity’s patron and then ended up spending some time with the soldiers on the ice. There was also a two-part BBC film covering the trip. The book was published as Walking With The Wounded by Sphere in August 2011, and was briefly in the top ten.
Around this time Mark conceived a novel, a whodunnit set at a literary festival. The project proceeded in fits and starts, and went through several drafts and titles before being submitted to publishers in 2012. ‘We liked it a lot,’ said one (rejecting) editor. ‘I did absolutely love this,’ wrote another, ‘and it made me laugh out loud.’ But? ‘We don’t tend to do well with comic novels.’ And so it went on. Eventually Mark realised he was looking at one publisher who might offer him £3000 if he waited six months; it would then take a further year to appear. So in March 2014 he made the decision to self-publish, setting up the imprint Prospero Press in order to do so. Things went better than he could have expected, and he garnered some excellent reviews (see News section), as well as being chosen by the Mail on Sunday as ‘Thriller of the Week’. The Prospero imprint then launched a second thriller, The Perfect Corpse, by the well-known historian Giles Milton. Both Giles and Mark were thrilled that this too was chosen as ‘Thriller of the Week’. Prospero Press is ongoing, and you can find more about it here.
Mark is now working on a second whodunnit, featuring Fest’s crime writer turned detective Francis Meadowes , but set far away from the literary world.