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 In my unpublished novel, for example, (Grimms/The Cruelty Man) Angela’s grandfather was her father.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.