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5.0 out of 5 stars
Tale of a Glasgow Hardman, 14 Mar 2011
Jimmy Boyle divides opinion like no other former criminal. While the Krays are now seen as loveable rogues who were kind to their mum Boyle is still seen as a nasty piece of work even though he was never as bad as Ronnie Kray.
If you read this book it's easy to see why Boyle turned out the way he did. Dad died young, Mum couldn't cope with raising four boys alone, Jimmy's bedroom was used by "uncles" to hide weapons when he was a child, gangs were everywhere. To survive living in the Gorbals Jimmy had to fight and steal, otherwise he would have been picked on. So joining the Cumbie gang was a logical solution to an intractable problem.
Boyle soon ended up in a succession of approved homes from Larchgrove to St John's - the latter being a university of crime run by violent and iffy priests. (Homosexuality was rife among the boys and one priest had a dirty book collection.) Boyle escaped to London on a whim thinking its streets were paved with gold. They weren't and he was soon brought back to Glasgow after robbing a shop. Did he learn his lesson? Of course not. For him crime and brutality became a way of life. It was certainly far easier than working. He only lasted a few weeks at the Evening Times and even less at a Govan shipyard. (He doesn't mention whether he worked with either Alex Ferguson or Billy Connolly.)
A pattern emerged in his life: crime led to a stint in an approved school again and again and again. Then aged 17 in 1961 he ended up in Barlinnie jail followed by Borstal for a 14 month stretch. Even this didn't knock any sense into him. (He contracted TB while inside.) Boyle is very honest about his feelings and behaviour during this period - he didn't give a damn if innocent folk got hurt in a fight - he just didn't want to get caught doing what he enjoyed, ie, crime. Even being locked in solitary confinement in Barlinnie and a terrible beating didn't make him change his ways. He was set in his ways.
The book at this point becomes slightly repetitive since that's how his life was but Boyle always writes with passion, honesty and realism so it's never a dull read. Boyle writing about the Gorbals with its tenement blocks, everyone knowing one another, the camaraderie, is wonderfully evocative and almost makes you wish for the good old days again. Boyle hated the new tower blocks and moved from street to street until the final tenement was bulldozed in the name of progress. He then had nowhere left to go. Except prison.
He was charged with murdering a man called Lynch in 1964 while running an illegal drinking den. He pleaded not guilty and was found not guilty. This was fortunate since a guilty verdict would have meant the death penalty.
He then spent time in Barlinnie and Peterhead jails following an assault. It was in Peterhead that he smeared himself with his own excrement the first time to avoid being hit by the warders.
By 1967 he was out of jail, back in the Gorbals, had a steady girlfriend, Margaret, a dog and even a house. Everything seemed rosy until he was charged with the murder of Babs Rooney, a man he said he'd only slashed on the chest with a knife. The Krays helped him hide out in London during the infamous 1967 "Summer of Love", but he was eventually caught and brought back to Glasgow to be tried. He was found guilty of murdering Rooney, lost his appeal and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was sent to Inverness to serve his porridge.
Boyle likens his time in Inverness to being sent to Siberia. Fittingly he read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn while in there. When he wasn't reading Russian novels he was arguing, fighting and continually being sent to the isolation block. Again this could be repetitive but isn't because Boyle writes so well. He writes about the awful pain that family visits bring (it reminds you of what you're missing) as well as the fact he took up yoga to stop his battered body from seizing up. He also injects an element of humour in recounting the tale of his breaking into the cell next door so that he could talk to his mate until they did the same with the whole row!
Boyle was repeatedly transferred between Peterhead and Inverness jails while a Lifer. His bete noire during this period was a prisoner he called "The Poof". He kept on running into this man even though they had a mutual loathing of one another. Boyle suspected the warders were happy for "The Poof" to act as a counterweight to him. In the end they were left alone by the warders to fight it out with one knife between them. Boyle inevitably won.
With "The Poof" out of the way Boyle got involved in prisoner politics, both at a local and national level. He was now a political animal rather than Scotland's most violent man. But all that annoyed the authorities so that, and a severe beating, led him back to Glasgow to the new Special Unit at Barlinnie.
The final section of the book is quite extraordinary. Boyle is suddenly still in prison but able to walk about freely, go unaided to the toilet when he wants, even make himself a cup of tea. He's used to being tied up, beaten up and shackled in a cage. At first he's suspicious of his new found freedom (is it a trick?) and then it drives him mad. Fearing he's cracking up he asks to go back to a "normal" jail.
The request is refused. His real breakthrough comes when he gets the opportunity to try his hand at a potters' wheel. He discovers he's a natural at it and becomes, surprise surprise, a talented artist. While in the Special Unit he exhibits his work as well as studies for an OU degree.
Suddenly James Boyle has a future after all. All he has to do is keep his head down and stay out of trouble. The book ends in 1977, five years before he's released in November 1982.
You don't need to be a Criminology student to enjoy this book that's, alas, now out of print. It's very readable and a wonderful insight into the human condition