For many authors, the path to their first novel can be a long and winding road. In the case of David Nolan, the first step towards Black Moss was taken at the dawn of the 1980s when he left St Ambrose College.
“The day before I left school I went for some careers advice from a very nice man called Mr Hibbert, who was also the woodwork teacher. He said to me, ‘OK, you’re leaving tomorrow, what do you want to do?’ Just to annoy him, I said I wanted to be a journalist. Really, I wanted to be a rock star, but I just had to say something and I hadn’t given it any thought. He looked through the little card index on his desk and said ‘there’s a job here for a trainee journalist in Altrincham. You won’t get it, but it’ll be good practice. Actually, there’s another job here for a groom in a stud farm, go and apply for that too.’ So, I applied for both jobs and I got the trainee journalist one. “
Horse husbandry’s loss turned out to be journalism’s gain. From this humble start at Altrincham’s Link Up magazine, Nolan went on to have an illustrious career in the field. He spent most of the 80s living and working in London, returning to Manchester to work at Piccadilly Radio and later Granada Television, working his way up from reporter to producer and director. “I made hundreds and hundreds of programmes for Granada in the final throes of its heyday. Amazing, amazing place.”
In 2001, Nolan did a documentary for Granada called I Swear I Was There about the Sex Pistols’ legendary gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976. A chance meeting with a publisher lead to him writing a book to accompany the documentary in the space of just nine weeks. Over time, Nolan’s I Swear I Was There book developed a reputation as a classic of its kind, and it led on to him writing several other music non-fiction titles, including well-received biographies of Bernard Sumner, Tony Wilson, Ed Sheeran and George Michael. It’s a different kind of work to journalism, particularly broadcasting, but when it comes down to it they’re all forms of writing and Nolan approached them all with the same degree of industriousness.
“I’ve written for a living since I was 16 and I’ve always treated as a job. My dad was a plumber, and in the same way as he clocked on and clocked off on a building site, I clock on and clock off as a writer. I’m not windswept at all, I never have been.”
Nolan’s career changed direction, though, when he became involved in the court case against Alan Morris, one of his former teachers at St Ambrose College. Morris was jailed in 2014 for sexually abusing pupils at the school, and Nolan was given special access to the proceedings to write a book, Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil, which told the full, unexpurgated story.
“A friend of mine said to me ‘oh, you’ve finally written a proper book, David’. That stuck in my mind a little bit. The reaction I got from the St Ambrose book was so extraordinary. People were emailing me, telling me their stories, people I’d never met before. It was incredibly moving. You don’t tend to get that writing books about George Michael. It was a stepping stone towards thinking ‘actually there’s no need to feel embarrassed about saying something important, about trying to make a point’.”
Another non-fiction ‘proper book’ was on the cards after that, but when that fell through, Nolan kept himself busy. “If I’m not writing, I really am quite annoying at home. So as not to annoy my wife I just started moving my fingers on a keyboard, and 1,000 words of this made-up thing came out. I thought ‘that’s weird, I’ve never done that before in my life’. I don’t even like a lot of fiction but this seemed to be a kind of crime fiction thing. I just kept on and kept on. I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing, not even my wife.”
In many ways, what Nolan was writing grew out of his abortive non-fiction project. “There were a lot of things that I’d wanted to say about child protection and the care of children. When I was started writing this, I realised I could say all those things and con everybody by masquerading it as a cracking yarn of a crime thriller.”
The end result, two years later, is Black Moss, Nolan’s fiction debut. It covers events in 1990 and follows their consequences through to the present day. Initially, the main character, Danny Johnson, is a young news reporter working for a Manchester radio station during the Strangeways riot.
Nolan explains: “A lot of the action takes place in the hills above Oldham. Black Moss is the name of a real reservoir up there and that’s where a child’s body is found in 1990. The premise of the book is the Strangeways riot is going on and that’s where every journalist and police officer in Manchester is looking. Then a body is found at Black Moss and nobody cares.”
“It was the biggest show in town. Parts of the book take place in this camp that built up around the jail during the riot. There was a kind of party atmosphere: people selling beer, people selling drugs, people selling ‘Strangeways Breakout 1990’ t-shirts, offering you weed and Red Stripe and the rest of it, which is all in the book. People have said to me ‘did that really happen?’. Yeah, it really happened. You had to be there, it was surreal. I remember being there one night and it was snowing, which is unusual for April. There was this chanting from inside the jail and it was prisoners trying to break through to the sex offenders wing. You could hear them chanting ‘Beasts! Beasts! Beasts! Beasts!’ at 3 o’clock in the morning, in the snow. Nearly 30 years on, it’s absolutely embedded in my mind. I thought ‘that’s a good backdrop, let’s use that’.”
What Black Moss isn’t, though, is any kind of Madchester novel.
“That’s just retrospective nonsense. The reality was if you switched on the radio in Manchester in 1990, you’ll be more likely to hear All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You by Heart as you would Step On by Happy Mondays. This notion of Madchester is a conceit, really. In 1990, Manchester was still very 80s.”
Nolan’s first experience of writing fiction wasn’t easy (“No, it was fucking horrible!”) but now he seems bitten by the bug. He’s been turning down non-fiction projects and has started working on a second novel, which he hopes will build up to a trilogy.
“I’m aiming for three and they’ll be connected by the fact that they’re all going to be called after bodies of water in and around Greater Manchester. I’m a big outdoors fan. I like to walk in the hills. Reservoirs are my thing. I’m not an expert in crime fiction and noir, but as a punter watching for the side-lines, there’s all this Scandi this and Scandi that, Shetland this and Shetland that, Scotland this and Scotland that. If you go up into the hills above Oldham or Rochdale or Ashton, though, they’re as bleak and as foreboding and as frightening as anything that you would get in Scandinavia or Scotland. So, this is ‘Manc Noir’.”
It’s a location that’s been under-used in fiction, but now Nolan is keen to claim it.
“The edge of the Black Moss reservoir is the border between Manchester and Yorkshire. If you go up there, you can see the Arndale Centre in the distance to your right. To the left you can see Huddersfield in the distance, but they’re a long way away. I think there’s something quite scary about that. It’s bleak up there. There are no trees. You just have these reservoirs, these great slabs of grey water, and I love them. In fact, the greyer, the more industrial and bleaker the water is up there, the more I love it.”
Black Moss by David Nolan is available now from Fahrenheit Press as a paperback and ebook.
Follow David on Twitter @Nolanwriter