Max Dickins discusses his play The Man On The Moor - inspired by the discovery of the body of an elderly man on Saddleworth Moor in 2015 which prompted a nationwide media campaign to find his identity – and why the British public are so gripped by mysteries.
“I told him he wouldn’t get there and back before dark.” That’s what Mel Robinson, landlord of The Clarence pub in Saddleworth, told Neil Dovestones that fateful day. They were to be the last words he ever heard. Less than 24 hours later he was found dead by a passing cyclist on Saddleworth Moor. He was carrying no form of identification: no phone, no keys, no wallet, nothing at all. In his right trouser pocket was £130 in ten pound notes. In his left trouser pocket were train tickets from the previous day. A single from Ealing Broadway to London Euston, and a return ticket from Euston to Manchester Piccadilly. The cause of death remained uncertain, but the police suspected it was deliberate. Neil Dovestones wasn’t his real name, either. It was what staff respectfully called him at Royal Oldham Hospital morgue, after the reservoir near where his body was discovered. To everyone else he was known simply as ‘the man on the moor.’ Despite a national media campaign he remained unidentified for almost 18 months.
From the moment I first read about this story it was a mystery that picked me up and wouldn’t put me down again. Three questions abided: who was this man? Why travel 200 miles to die? And how can someone be so unconnected in the modern world? This man seemingly had no family, no friends, no job, and no home. He didn’t even have a name. But cadavers don’t just drop out of the sky, he must have come from somewhere. But where?
I was not alone in my obsession. The forums of amateur ‘web sleuths’ websites buzzed with theories. Newspapers from all over the world speculated too that he might have been an assassinated spy. Or ‘Basil’: the missing robber from the Hatton Garden jewellery heist. Others wondered if he could have been linked to the Moors murders in some way. In the end the answer was to be both more mundane and more extraordinary at the same time.
After the police went public with the man’s image, 40 different people reached out to claim ‘the man on the moor’ as their own long-term missing brother, father, or friend. They all looked at the same picture and saw a different person: their person. This is the nub of why we love mysteries so much. Human beings are narrative machines: we can weave coherent stories from the smallest snippets of information. We see a fact and run with it, until we have created whole worlds of make-believe.
JJ Abrams, the director of Star Wars, described stories as ‘mystery boxes.’ They are full of questions we desperately want answered. We don’t cope well with the unfinished, the uncertain. All of us might be described in the same way: there remains a core of us all that is unreachable, unknowable. The man on the moor certainly was. In March this year he was finally identified as David Lytton. Ten years previously he’d vanished from Streatham in South London to start a new life in Pakistan. He left behind a mother, brother and long-term girlfriend who were none the wiser. That is, of course, until they got a call from the police telling them he had died.
Mr Lytton flew back from Pakistan to Heathrow the day before he made his doomed journey north. A toxicology report concluded he had taken his own life. Poisoning himself with strychnine, a banned pesticide which causes a horrific, slow death, eventually from asphyxiation. Nobody knows why he chose Saddleworth: he had no apparent connection to the area. Nobody knows why he chose to disappear in the first place. It’s all a mystery. All we’re left with is a few scarce facts. But that’s all we need to tell ourselves a story we can believe.
The Man on the Moor plays from 3rd-27th August at the Underbelly, Cowgate, during the Edinburgh Fringe.
Tickets available at www.edfringe.com