Jimmy Boyle


Jimmy Boyle says he doesn’t sleep much at night – about four hours usually – which isn’t really surprising.

Spending a large part of your life in prison, it’s easy to conclude, will do that to you, especially when a large part of all the long, idle hours have been spent in solitary confinement.

After so many wasted years inside, sleep was always going to be fairly low on Boyle’s list of priorities.

Besides, even though he says four hours is all he needs, he has had further incentives for wanting to postpone the prospect of sleep.

Despite the fact that he has carved out a fairly affluent life for himself – through his writing and his sculpture – since his release from Barlinnie jail’s now-defunct Special Unit, his sleep has been haunted by nightmares: recurring dreams ridden with pain, guilt, and fear of confinement.

One of these dreams was “especially horrifying”, he mentions, his stony-faced expression betraying barely a trace of emotion.

“It had a sort of contemporary setting, with my two kids looking in at me in prison. And there was this double psychology of me telling myself, ‘this is just a dream, this is just a dream’. And then I’d get this feeling, ‘no it’s not a dream. This is real.’ And it would strike the fear of death into me. Horrible.”

People may look at Jimmy Boyle and think that he is out now. Society may look at his life and see him as reformed. But that doesn’t mean that even though it has been 16 years since Jimmy Boyle’s release, the scars of the whole experience don’t run deep.

Once branded by the press as “The Most Violent Man In Britain”, he has become as well known now for having stopped his violent life as having lived it.

The TV adaptation of his autobiography, A Sense of Freedom (written in jail), and press and publicity about his international success as a sculptor have seen to that.

Since his release he has forged his own reputation in fields as diverse as sculpture, campaigning for prison reform and now the publication of a novel, Hero Of The Underworld.

When my cab pulls away into the traffic on a busy Edinburgh afternoon leaving him on the kerb watching, there is the briefest of pauses before the driver comments: “That’s Jimmy Boyle eh ? Reformed Character eh ?”

Boyle has been tagged with the convenient cliché of being “The Reformed Character’ for so long, the words are probably in his passport under Job Description.

But compared to other publicly known figures granted the same, complacent, status (John McVicar, celebrity criminals like Frankie Frazier, and so on), the term ‘reformed character’ doesn’t really give you the half the story.

Jimmy Boyle has changed much more than that.

Both Boyle’s rehabilitation and his reputation may, in part, be built on myth but, as A Sense of Freedom details, that in no way undermines exactly what type of person he used to be.

He denies that one of the incidents that forged his reputation (when he was said to have ‘crucified’ one of his debtors by nailing his hands to a wooden floor) ever took place.

And he has always insisted that he was not responsible for the murder he was convicted of – although he admits to being there and even to slashing the victim (a rival villain by the name of Babs Rooney) down the chest.

Raised by his mother (a cleaner) after his father (a safe blower) was killed in a fight when Jimmy was only four, Boyle grew up in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, progressing towards his reputation as a Hard Man from the age of 12 via a string of Approved Schools, borstals and prisons, becoming the youngest prisoner in the notorious Barlinnie jail at just 18.

One of the ironies about Boyle’s story is that, as a child, when he was caught stealing and sent away from his mother for the first time, the prospect of Borstal both traumatised and terrified him precisely in the way that advocates of the Short Sharp Shock wanted it to.

But each time he says, it left him “a much harder person as it tore me from my family, giving me confidence amongst kids my own age… It made us fitter, and more angry.”

He became a thief and one of Glasgow’s most feared gangsters, running illegal drinking shebeens and money-lending rackets, and involved on both ends of numerous stabbings, glassings, and hammer attacks.
When Glasgow got too hot for him, he would head for London where the Krays would take care of him.

He had walked away from several charges of murder and attempted murder, before, he claims, the bloodied knife that his best friend had used on Babs Rooney after Boyle had left the scene, mysteriously turned up in his flat during a police search.

The police – determined to get him off the streets – had raided his house so often, on one occasion they even took his Doberman pincher into custody.

Perenially in jail (in Barlinnie, Peterhead and four spells in Inverness – “the Siberia of the Scottish penal system”), his rage against the authorities, the prison wardens and governors became a personal crusade and a constant battle of wits.

He dismantled the walls of one cell with his bare hands, tore up a padded cell and suffered seemingly endless beatings, sometimes while in a straitjacket.

He spent so much time in the punishment blocks, “silent cells” and solitary confinement that he repeatedly teetered on the brink of insanity or being unable to communicate altogether.

A long period kept in a cage within a cell inside a solitary block left him totally “animalised” – reveling in the spit and shit that ended up in his food and rubbing himself in his own feces to deter the beatings that would greet his defiance.

The long process of rehabilitation gradually began – at first with books like Crime & Punishment and yoga before his introduction to sculpture by an art therapist in the Special Unit.

Even then, his fear of being fitted up by the guards was such he was constantly searching his own cell – for implements as small as sewing needles.

He claims to have found prison keys, a hacksaw and, returning back to jail after one spell in the community shortly before his eventual release, a wrap of cocaine and some tin foil, planted in his cell. Another prisoner had tipped him off.
“There was a great protective ring around me,” he says genially.

He remains convinced that those within the prison system resented him because he rehabilitated “without finding religion or anything else, without losing my dignity or my integrity, or grassing anyone up… Their view was that I’d beat the system.”

Consequently, he maintains, the Special Unit at Barlinnie was scrapped because “they didn’t want another Jimmy Boyle.”

Even now, he has been prevented from returning to Scottish jails to give talks to the prisoners.

Before meeting him, I couldn’t understand why any
ex-prisoner who had spent so many years locked up on his own would opt for sculpting, imagining he would be in an enclosed studio.

In fact, the space where he works is an old garage that opens out on to a lovely view of courtyard and garden with the crisp winter sunshine streaming in as we talk.

There is a weights room nearby and, at 54, he is still powerfully built, with something of the Glasgow Good Fella about the style of his suit and silver hair with alarmingly strong hands with fingers like uncooked sausages.

Set against his ruddy complexion, his blue eyes twinkle with stories, mischievous good humour and, above all, a real appreciation of what a good life he has.

After all, between the ages of 11 and 38 he was almost continually in some kind of penal institution and al the pivotal events of his life were experienced from jail.

He learned of the birth of his first daughter – Patricia – with his first partner, Margaret in prison. He attended his mother’s funeral in 1971 in handcuffs, surrounded by guards and police dogs. And in 1980 he married his second wife Sarah – also in prison.

He and his wife, Sarah (a psychotherapist and daughter of former film censor John Trevelyan) met while she was visiting a friend in Barlinnie and was introduced to Jimmy in the Special Unit.

They now live with their two children, Kydd (11) and Suzi (14) in a renovated 12-room house in an affluent area on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

It’s here that the Gateway Exchange Trust he founded after his release (for mostly HIV and drug-related charities and disadvantaged kids) is based.

Boyle’s involvement in helping addicts has been horribly poignant: in May 1994, his son James was stabbed to death at the age of 26 in a dispute over drugs.
“I’d been waiting for the call from the police telling me he’d been killed for years,” Boyle has said.

Sculpture, the other love of his life, has taken him all over the world and made him a good living.

He talks casually about going over to Carrara once a year to select his marble, the massive exhibition planned in Barcelona for 2003 and his recent trip to supervise an installation in Moscow.

He has a gleaming BMW with personalised number plate in the garage, a house in the South of France, and a love of fine wine that led, for a while, to a business importing champagne.

His conversation is rich with the names of friends like Jim Kerr or Billy Connolly who is playing a character based mostly on his life since his release in the forthcoming film, The Debt Collector. A former member of the band Foreigner, Domenick Allen, is also planning to put a musical version on Broadway of a play, The Hard Man, Boyle wrote in the 1970s.

Then next month sees the publication of Jimmy Boyle’s first novel, Hero of the Underground – a remorselessly brutal, surreal, story that is decidedly not for the faint-hearted set in a penal institution, a mortuary and an abattoir.

The writing and the imagination behind the book have a bizarre, vivid, style and dark, disgusting humour that puts Flann O’Brien, Steven Berkoff or even Irvine Welsh to shame, with characters such as slum landlord Slates Rafferty, mortician Shuffles McGuinness, and prison officers/rapists Fat Head and Gorky.

The hero’s trusty sidekick at the Abattoir is a “knobbly”, incontinent, midget “drenched in blood”, with a rubber doll for a girlfriend. There are vagrants (Warthog and Skelly) who live off rats, morticians masturbating corpses and guzzling formaldehyde and abattoir “killers” drinking pints of pig’s blood.

It is, powerful, nightmarish stuff.
“Well I doubt the magazine will be serialising it, that’s for sure,” he chuckles.

The story and the characters are so visceral and extreme as to veer towards the Grotesque but beneath the surreal colour, the stark themes are surely his own: the hatred of prison and prison guards; the fear of freedom; the bitter effects of isolation; what he calls “the vacuum of my solitude.”

It has anger and pain written across every page, so fervently that, on first reading, the book struck me as the sort of cathartic, therapeutic exercise that could have been written when he was in jail.

Boyle, for his part, shrugs off any connection to his own experiences, or the notion he had any difficulty in conjuring it up.

“It’s all made up. I’ve never been in an abattoir or a funeral parlour in my life. I wanted to create something very different. The problem for me is, it’s always gonna be difficult for people to separate me from my past. I don’t make this part of my life public.”

The novel started as a distraction from the hours of sculpting – “if I was suffering from a block.”

He is now writing another one, in the same distinctive style: “quite wicked, really funny – about the theft of the Mona Lisa and how it ends up on a housing estate in Glasgow. It’s about then way that people don’t believe the underclass can appreciate art.”

When his art therapist, Joyce Laing, started working in the Special Unit, he claims he and the other prisoners only pretended to be interested to make sure she kept coming in.

But when she started them sculpting, with a 7lb bag of clay, he said he felt as if he had known it all his life.
“It was like a dam bursting in me.”

Now he has pieces all over the world – from the city of Hull to Belarus station, though he refuses to sell to any of the Scottish museums on the grounds “they’re all snobby bastards.”

For the exhibition in Barcelona he is doing 45 pieces in bronze, selling limited editions of six of each, for about £ 8000 each. Other pieces can go as high as £20-25,000.

The most recent are typical Jimmy Boyle pieces: faceless howling, shapes of pain or faces twisted in horror, clutching each other in grief, inspired by Epstein, Rodin or Bacon or, more directly, by incidents in Serbia or the war tribunals in South Africa.

“My work as a sculptor,” he offers, still uncomfortable
trying to express it or analyse it in person, “is about the human spirit of ordinary people. Mass crowd and dislocated, displaced people. Powerlessness. Very raw and bleak, aye. I would never do a commission about the great and the good.”

One of the most striking aspects of Boyle’s transformation (described in A Sense of Freedom) is that after he was transferred to the Special Unit (after the attempted murder of 6 prison officers), he found he couldn’t cope with the methods of respect and compassion pivotal to the whole concept of his rehabilitation.

It bothered him that he was allowed to use implements such as scissors on his own, or that the guards didn’t insist on accompanying him to the toilets – so much so, that he went to the governor and asked to be sent back to a more traditional jail.

The fact that Boyle has never used counseling to resolve these experiences, despite the fact that his wife is a psychotherapist is testament to his sheer force of will.

“I can either let it warp me with bitterness or move on, and life’s about moving on,’ he says flatly.

But the degree to which he has changed can be judged more by how easily shocked he is by so many things now; how easily roused into outrage about society’s easy acceptance of crime and prison conditions, “the little communities of people in Dover – wee straight punters – going across to France smuggling tobacco”, or drug barons in prison living the life of luxury, still making fortunes.

“Mobile phones !” he exclaims, he exclaims, appalled.
“It would have been a scandal in my day.”

When I mention notions like former Krays’ henchman Frankie Fraser’s Christmas video, his disgust reaches almost Victor Meldrew-like proportions.

“He’s got this tour, right ? He came up here for the Edinburgh Festival and they tried to get me to go along, but I’m not interested. You know, people suffered but Frankie Fraser’s never said ‘sorry’ ! People try to romanticise it; everyone’s making money out of it. No standards or nothing. The value system’s gone right out of the window.”

He is happy to have no part of it, and who can blame him ?
Nowadays, he gets up at six for a run in the park and a spell in his gym.
“After that, every other day, I take the kids to school. And then it’s studio time. Work through the day, mebbe till two, half two in the morning.”

Whatever he has done or didn’t do in his life, Jimmy Boyle has done something few of us can really claim: he has put his past behind him, and changed.