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Roddy Lumsden & Villains
on 5 November 2006
Reg McKay is fast becoming the godfather of Scottish true crime books. It helps that he often has in tow Paul Ferris, once a notorious, feared Glasgow gangster. Ferris now seems to be on the straight and narrow, nearly six years after being released from prison for gunrunning (he claims he was only moving a box as a favour for a villain from whom he was picking up counterfeit banknote plates - for 'one last big one', as the criminal cliché has it).
McKay and Ferris's latest volume (following last year's Vendetta which shifted plenty of copies) is called Villains (and wryly tagged 'It takes one to know one'). Though the narration is given in the first person voice of Ferris, McKay's style is unmistakeable, and it makes you curious as to how they collaborate. Villains is a lucky bag of tales of lowlife wretches, bent cops, con merchants and, as Ferris calls them, 'men of honour'. Some stories are offcuts from the Arthur Thompson saga, some are vitriolic accounts of those who have crossed Ferris, others are retellings of violence, derring do and audacious cons, from criminal raconteurs of Ferris's acquaintance.
Paul Ferris is hard to get to grips with - for a start he looks more like an affable football manager than a career hard man - and in The Last Godfather (McKay's book on the Thompson dynasty of Glasgow gangsters), he came over as something of a hero. That Ferris, as a small and bullied teenager, found the courage for revenge seems undisputed, tracking down his tormentors (mostly from the feared Welsh family, sworn enemies of the Thompsons) one by one and leaving one of them with his scalp hanging off. He soon had a reputation. After several years as one of Thompson's lieutenants (alongside Tam Bagan), Ferris was wanted for a high number of serious crimes, many of them carried out against other villains.
Vendetta caused a bit of a stir, not least in accusations of the involvement of various authorities and individuals in the wrongdoings of Paul Bennett, a Liverpool gangster who Ferris evidently thinks has got off lightly for his many crimes. Even Deadly Divisions, a novel written by the McKay / Ferris pairing caused ructions apparently - Ferris claims the police dug up graves in Glasgow's Necropolis cemetery, convinced that a scene in the book must have a basis in truth.
The revelations in Villains are not so shocking and indeed, MI5 are unlikely to be interested in Ferris's outing of Glasgow hard man Jaimba McLean as a secret bingo player. But the yarns are good. The most intriguing sections are those dealing with villainous exploits outside of Scotland - including the latter drugged-up days of Rab Carruthers, a Glasgow street player who later transferred himself, and his power, south to Manchester.
In the early 90s, before his last, lengthy jail sentence, Ferris spent time with him there, and also in London, where he and McLean, after an almighty pub brawl, almost set off a war between the Arif and the Adams families, still two of the most potent criminal families in England. The chapter on the Adams family struck me as the most revealing - with McKay's help, Ferris can come across as a likeable rogue, a campaigner for the 'honest criminal', who plays by the rules of the street, over the ruthless thugs and junkies who care nothing for innocents in the way. But I don't buy his portrayal of the Adamses as a misunderstood bunch who have been demonised by the media.
These days, Ferris is sticking to the business of making legitimate money out of our eternal interest in the illegitimate, with plans for documentaries on villains, including the life of TC Campbell, the former robber who was jailed for the so-called Ice Cream Wars arson murders. There are plans for a film about Ferris, with Robert Carlyle up for the lead (a chapter of the book charts Ferris's dealings with the brother of rock star Jim Kerr, who initiated the film, but is no longer on Ferris's Christmas card list, shall we say). Villains is another success for this writing team and I recommend it to fellow readers who lap up these racy, psychology-free, true crime confessions.