Nicky Nicholls & Elizabeth Sheppard (2018) Not a Proper Child

Graham Greene’s whisky priest in The Power and the Glory doesn’t drink whisky, but damnation. Author, Nicky Nicholls also drunk of damnation. She drunk so much she found it her only salvation.

‘Needing to drink like I needed to breathe air. A craving so total that there’s no space around it.’

Nicky Nicholls (aided by Elizabeth Sheppard) has all the elements needed to create a successful misery memoir or a work of fiction. In my unpublished novel, for example, (Grimms/The Cruelty Man) Angela’s grandfather was her father. She was raped at the age of five by Jaz. Tick, tick, tick. Here we have Nicky Nicholls mother Sylvia being raped by her father, Edwin, and giving birth to Nicky and leaving her baby, her daughter in a basket, with a note, outside Stoke football ground. Nicky is taken back to her grandfather rapist’s house, who abuses her, as does her stepbrother/Uncle Vernon. Grandad Edwin tells her he’s doing it because ‘She’s not a proper child’.

This is a great start to any book, as I know, because I too used it. But, in some ways, the authors of Not a Proper Child starts with the wrong hook for readers, elsewhere, on the Moors with Myra Hindley in October 1965.  Ian Brady had been arrested four days previously and there’s media coverage that it’s something to do with the disappearance of children.

Nicky Nicholls, who changed her name by deed poll when in the army, is 20, much the same ages as Hindley who is 23. Nicholls had a dishonourable discharge after falling drunkenly through a plate glass window at barracks had been arrested on a minor charge of attempting to break into a factory and remanded at Grisley Risley. Nicholls and Hindley’s paths cross briefly after Nicholl’s a prison trustee helps to prepare a cell for the Moors Murderer.

‘Hindley gazed through her, impassive. Though close enough to touch, she was nowhere at all. For a second, she looked into the dark.’

Nicholls knows what the darkness looks like. She has known little else but darkness. By the age of fifteen she judges herself to be the loneliest girl in the world. By that time her real mum (not her granny) Sylvia has come back to take her to live in London, in a nice house, far away from ‘buggerlugs’ as she calls Edwin her dad and Nicholl’s paedophile grandfather and his son. But Syvia is damaged goods. She beats Nicholl’s for infringement real or imagined and doesn’t let her stay in the proper house with her four other daughters, but keeps her apart with the housekeeper, Ms Anand, in the basement.

I’m not sure here whether Sylvia or the housekeeper, act together. Mrs Anand takes her to a different house. She’s six or seven and given orange juice which makes her eyes and throat smart. She’s got to drink it and is given a second glass. Men in suits come to use her before Mrs Anand takes her back to the basement. Later, she remembers a young boy was also there, bleeding at the bum. She doesn’t want to tell. Her mum beats her harder when she cries. When her mum breaks her foot and she can’t skip at school with the other girls, she knows her mum will get into trouble. She gets sent back to Stoke.

Years later the taste of gin sends her crashing back to the past. Drink destroys her, but it’s all she’s got to hold onto. In my novel Angel had a dog, Blodger. Here Nicholls has a dog called Dog. It’s her one true love. The one consistent part of her life. Blodger is hanged by Jaz and his mate. Here, Uncle Vernon drowns Dog in the canal after Dog growls at her uncle who is abusing her. Tick again.

Angel gets sent to jail in a trumped up charge of attempted murder. Nicholls is sent to prison for murder. Tick. Officers made her sign a confession. Even the governor of the prison she was later sent believed Nicholls to be innocent.

So here we have it, some things you can’t make up have already happened. The reader knows that Nicholls finds salvation, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to co-write a book.   Alcoholism, child abuse, Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder, wrongfully convicted of murder, mental-health problems and Myra Hindley.

The latter is a false flag, but the rest of the memoir works in the way it should. But it’s not all bad guys and evil women. For salvation Nicholls must find the true north of good friends. People that care and people that are caring. They are here too, but in a misery memoir, it’s the misery that foregrounds the book. For those that work in residential care settings this should be an essential read. It’s no big surprise that those from care homes and those from army backgrounds disproportionately fill our prisons. Most women in prison have been abused. Mad, sad, or bad? Nicholls was never bad. Society certainly wasn’t good to her. Mad and sad, absolutely and utterly—that’s where the drink comes in. We all know about that.  Read on.       

Graham Greene (2010 [1940]) The Power and the Glory.

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I read The Power and the Glory years ago. But there’s no glory in forgetting the books I read faster than the faces I meet. If pushed I might have known it was set in Mexico and I would have remembered the main character was a whisky priest, but not that he was the narrator. What stuck was a scene in which the whisky priest comes to a small village and one of the peons that come to meet him goes back to his family and friends and urges them to go to the priest for the sacrament of Confession because he’d travelled all that way and it would be a discourtesy not to. That’s not what happens in the book, but something of that truth remains.

I came to Greene’s book from a strange angle. I’d read about 100 pages of Neil Gaiman’s weighty and well-received book American Gods and knew I wouldn’t read any more, or finish the other 500-odd pages.  Then I wondered what it reminded me of. I could have gone the Gothic-Dracula- route and ended up with a Stephen King surrogate, but Graham Greene sprung to mind.

If anybody ever says something like you never step into the same river twice, do me, and mankind a favour, and drown them. The Power and the Glory is about redemption, salvation even, but there are no heroes, just human beings with ordinary failings and some virtues that might not be virtues. The suffering of the Mexican people is evident. Poverty, endemic hunger and sickness march alongside the whisky priest and the choices he makes endangers everyone he meets. There is a narrative running alongside the hunt for the whisky priest and that is the hunt for a gringo, an American bank robber, armed and dangerous that is hiding out in the state, but for the lieutenant hunting both of them it is the priest that matters. One is only stealing money from banks, the other is a true subversive taking money from the poorest people and propagating false ideas that there is a god that cares about them. Neutered versions of the whisky priest such as Father Jose who have renounced their vocation and married are examples of moderation and the mockery of a man. Yet, he too, is offered redemption of sorts by the lieutenant when he offers him a chance to hear the confession of the whisky priest. The lieutenant is no Pontius Pilate figure, but an honourable man, who unknowingly, at one stage, gives the whisky priest money to buy food. And the half-caste with his gopher-like front teeth while closer to a Judas figure is no villain, as the whisky priest comes to realise. No heroes, no villains, just humans.

At the heart of the book is the believe in transubstantiation, quite a mouthful for most folk, a believe that the whisky priest is man that is able to bring god to earth and turn water into Christ’s blood and bread into Christ’s body. This believe is shown most clearly by the half-human Indians that walked fifty or more miles overnight, to kiss his hand and wait patiently for a miracle to happen. It is the Judas figure that springs the trap, with his story that the bank robber had picked up a child and used her as a human shield to escape from the police. But the police had shot through the child, because it was only an Indian, and wounded the bank robber, although not fatally. He was a Catholic, asking for the last rites of Confession, something the whisky priest had no right to deny him. But the whisky priest is not a prisoner, he can turn the other way, back to his old life of big meals and fawning older women kissing his hand.

One of the things that confused me reading the book now, rather than a younger version of me (with hair) was when the whisky priest returns to his old village, where he’s sure he’ll receive a warm welcome but doesn’t. The police have been shooting hostages from villages they believe have sheltered him and the villagers are anxious for him to leave. But he meets a child, with the devil in her eyes. A child that the priest recognises and admits that he’s committed a great sin. I immediately thought Graham Greene was somehow prophetic, over 50 years ago he recognised that priests were abusing kids and having sex with them. As we know now they were (and are). But the whisky priest’s big sin was to have a few minutes pleasure with a woman, a villager, whom he got pregnant. Ho-hum, hardly a revelation nowadays, but I guess back then it was a big thing. Shocking, in the way child abuse is. A man that humbly submits to his fate for the good of all, there’s a revolutionary idea that doesn’t feature much in politics or in life. Does it matter if there’s a god? Not really. What matters now is the zealots are on the march, hating everybody that is different. These are the guys that are winning hearts and minds and they don’t mind shooting through the bodies of Mexicans, Indians, or watching whoever washing up dead on beaches, as long as they are right. And they are far right, but far from right, god help us.

Frank Tuohy (1957 [1970]) The Animal Game and Live Bait.

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Frank Tuohy (1957 [1970]) The Animal Game

The Animal Game is Frank Tuohy’s first novel, published in 1957 and out of print now. Think of Graham Greene. Then think of Frank Tuohy. I’d guess you’ve heard of the former and not the latter.  I hadn’t heard of him either, until I read his story Live Bait in a collection of short stories selected by David Miller, That Glimpse of Truth. 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written. We’ve all got our preferences. Miller’s is a kind of conceit, I’d guess, aimed more at the commercial market. There were some great stories and some disappointments in Miller’s choice, but the story which stuck was Live Bait. It seemed pretty much perfect. So perfect in fact I bought Frank Tuohy’s collection of short stories also called Live Bait. I even wrote a short story with many of the similar themes, but with many more failings. It’s impossible to get it right, but I keep on trying.  With books I’m easily reeled in.

The Animal Game won a number of awards, but for me doesn’t quite gel, and is set in an unnamed South American country run by European and British ex-pats, the right kind of chaps that know how to get things done. Tuohy is pitch perfect about social nuances and how they’re played out. In Live Bait, for example, Andrew goes with his school friend Jeremy to fish in the grounds of The Peverills. They had a distant connection to Jeremy’s mother, which made it alright. But Andrew is told by Major Peverill, who later tries to sexually abuse him, he’s the wrong sort. ‘You mustn’t expect to come her frequently. There will be no question of that. Jeremy understands. It is different for him.’ When Andrew tells his elders that he attends the same public school as Jeremy on special terms Major Peverill cackles, ‘Good god, he admits it. The little brat admits it.’  The Perverill’s view of the social world and the good society is shaken. Similarly, The Animal Game, also stood for the last digit on the lottery ticket, and  more so in life’s lottery. it involves a young Englishman, Robin Morris, an outsider. He travels to live and work in that South American county makes it difficult not to read into his journey Tuohy’s own, from scholarship boy to a first in English literature at King’s College, Cambridge, and from there to a Chair of English Literature at Sao Paul in Brazil and the insights he gained.   Mrs Kochen his landlady sends her son to English school and her visceral hatred of coloured is played out when Morris hires a native housekeeper. With his class and background Morris has access to the upper echelons of the polite society that quietly goes about the business of milking wealth and running the country for their benefit. Animal Games begins with the scion of one of those families, the beautiful blonde femme fatale, Cecilia being trapped in her Packard in a road block caused by a worker’s going on strike. Ahead of her is intrigue with a naïve Morris, a truck full of pigs left in the harsh sunlight and tailback, starved, so that the animals begin to eat one another. I’m sure there’s a kind of metaphor there.