Brought to book

Gordon Williams

  • Ronnie Biggs: His Own Story by Michael Joseph
    Sphere, 238 pp, £7.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 7181 1972 X
  • A Sense of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle
    Pan, 264 pp, £1.25, September 1977, ISBN 0 330 25303 4

Train-robber Biggs and murderer Boyle present in their testaments a challenge to our moral reflexes. Both authors have appalling records: South Londoner Biggs with countless petty interviews, conspiracy to commit biography, and now brazen autobiography executed in ruthlessly-priced hard-back, plus indecent exposure on a Sex Pistols waxing: Glaswegian Boyle with an audaciously publicised apologia here compounded in paperback, cold-blooded participation before the fact in a television film witnessed by millions of law-abiding citizens, and flagrant indulgence in the plastic arts (to wit, sculpture with a sharp instrument) under the very noses of the prison authorities. Clearly, as media recividists, they risk consignment to the living tomb of contemporary British writing. Many would have them rot as unpersons in the dank obscurity of the Booker Prize.

To deal with them first as authors, it is all too easy to pick holes in the facts and philosophising in both testaments. In the case of Biggs, the rehashing of old material to earn a few bob is so transparent an exercise as to become almost endearing. Good Soldier Biggs ambles from a Brixton boyhood into petty thieving and friendship with big-timer Bruce Reynolds, who asks him to make one for the big job because he can produce a bent train-driver: ‘I knew before the meeting that there were qualms about my being included on the job, because I was such an unlucky thief; even Bruce was worried. Jobs I had done with him had always turned out badly; either the money was not there because it had been banked the previous day, or some other piece of bad luck prevented us striking it rich.’ On he ambles through arrest and mistrial and conviction: ‘With a thirty year sentence ahead of me in a place like Wandsworth it was no wonder that I was fed up.’ Fed-up?

While Gorbals loan-shark Boyle is sinking his teeth into a screw’s neck and being beaten senseless in the Caledonian Archipelago, genial Biggs leaps the Wandsworth wall, makes it to Paris for plastic surgery, gets down the Folies Bergère for a few drinks, the most wanted man in the world strolling about three continents telling new pals who he really is.

His assets seem to be general matiness and what would be called high spirits in a Colditz hero, imbecility in a man facing thirty years. On the Ellinis from Melbourne to Rio, he decides that jollity is his best cover and quickly pulls a frigid Englishwoman:

   Dancing, and enjoying ourselves, was but an excuse for drinking, and so practically every night we all ended up drunk. But it brought us together and we had a fantastic time ...

   On one occasion when I got very drunk I decided to surprise the blokes in the cabin by entering it via the porthole ... there I was hanging from the railings, my feet perched on the top of the porthole, unable to make any progress ...

   Next morning, when I had sobered up, I realised how near I had come to dropping into the ocean. No question of cries of ‘Man Overboard’ because my antics had taken place at 2 a.m. when there was no one around.

And yet all the known masterminds were caught. One of his few quasi-revelations is that the bent driver and two robbers were never identified, and naturally, it was one of these who coshed the train-driver. The likes of Buster Edwards and Jim Hussey come across socially as chaps to go into the jungle with, although novelist Piers Paul Read might demur: despite being warned by Biggs that he was being wound up, he more or less accepted the robbers’ concocted revelation that the robbery was financed by Otto Skorzeny the scar-faced Nazi daredevil.

Men who pull off a world-record robbery, and then hear a man in a wig wiping thirty years off their lives, possibly don’t take book publication quite so seriously as the sedentary classes. After all, their function is to provide myths for scribblers. And who cares anyway? – the self-justifying memoirs of today’s criminals soon turn to dusty junk.

Who can blame Biggs for cynicism after his attempt to come clean with the Daily Express and thereby give himself up, only to be instantly betrayed and done out of his agreed £35,000 by the pillars of Calvinist rectitude? Again and again, Boyle attempted to interest the press in the nightmare violence of the Scottish prison system. Certainly these men are/were enemies of society – but what society? Did they ever dine in Downing Street, let alone get life peerages? Their stories cover a period when drug pushers and porn pedlars were moonlighting as senior Scotland Yard officers. There is no single recorded instance of any public official, national or local, refusing a John Poulson bribe. And a lot of the time, Reggie Maudling was Home Secretary. Not that we should fall into the trap of criminal rationaliation: even if law and order and public morality are a sham, the illusion is necessary to keep miners down the mine.

Biggs would know all that: he makes no claim to psychological or economic deprivation as a child, and no allegations of prison brutality. It is a fact of life that detectives make up incriminating statements, that he wasn’t cautioned properly, that there was no evidence putting him on the scene of the robbery, that his sentence was double that of a murderer. He even seems to apologise for being ‘fed up’ with the prospect of thirty years: ‘Even so, at the time I was still thinking about doing my time and making the best of a bad mess in the hope of an early parole.’

Scotland has a different genetic and cultural programming: ‘They sent for the doctor and when he came I stood in the corner like a wounded, frightened animal, refusing to trust anyone but still very dangerous. I refused to let him treat me, telling him he was one of them, part of them. The blood was splashed over the walls and running down my face and body.’ After another staff beating, Boyle was treated for the imprint of a hobnail boot on his face. He was not, of course, an animal, but as long as he behaved like one the Scottish prison service was happy to oblige him. He sounds insane: punching a governor, jumping screws at every excuse, smearing shit on his cell. But there is no mention of psychiatric investigation. Instead he got the beatings and kickings he asked for and fully expected: in that man’s world, warders who get their throats bitten and lose an eye and hear some Glasgow hooligan vowing to kill them do not wait to raise it at a Transactional Analysis group.

Boyle says he needed these fights to avoid becoming either a vegetable or a bootlicker. In the end, the suicidal violence of men like him induced the Scottish prison department to set up the Barlinnie special unit, a daring experiment in treating animals like human beings. Is it a pilot scheme, or will it even survive against authoritarian orthodoxy as a one-off sport?

One of the few attitudes common to Scotland and England is the desire for harsh treatment of bad men: the most brutal of Boyle’s uniformed attackers were only carrying out a policy that any referendum would heartily endorse. (Ironically, the aristocratic paternalism of the Tory Party might seem to promise better for humane prisons than does the hard-faced Stalinism of the Labour Party and trade unions). Boyle may be truly reformed, the violence may have burned itself out, but he was a bad bastard and there are noticeable equivocations in his testament: the Gorbals is to blame for everything, loan-sharking is a public service. He is too cute to say he was framed for the murder that got him life: he didn’t do it, only he can’t come clean, he says in a slippery footnote, because that would ‘create problems for someone else’. Basically, he presents himself as a victim. As a gang warrior, moneylender, convicted murderer, long-term prisoner, Boyle continually put himself in positions where savage retaliatory beatings were inevitable, and you wouldn’t need a string of psychiatric degrees to describe this as self-sought punishment for some unspecified guilt and self-loathing.

Irritatingly evasive and self-justifying as parts of his book are, he has undoubtedly changed a great deal, and common humanity makes us wish him an anonymous future far from his fans in the media. Biggs, one feels confident, will land on his toes no matter what dumb moves his brain conjures up (interesting to imagine him and Boyle sharing a cell, the one raging to kill, the other a bit fed up). What can we wish for the people who watched Boyle and other prisoners being beaten to a bloody pulp? One is reminded of the whipping of spastics. The wardens one might understand if not forgive: they have to live with their own daily terrors. But what about the governors, the prison visitors, the padres, the judges, the press, and, above all, the doctors. Did anyone of them resign, or even stand up in protest? I repeat: doctors.

We wonder how Christian Germany, Beethoven and all, turned Nazi. Boyle’s case – vicious as he was, he was still only a naked individual in an iron system – shows how a lack of moral sense in the educated classes can give tacit approval to sadism.

I was being carried with my head near the grond and my legs up in the air, all the while being hit with sticks and boots. I could see the trail of blood I was leaving on the ground. My last memory of the affair was seeing a shiny boot bounce into my face and strike me. I lost consciousness.

Next time round it might not be the Glasgow gangster. It might be you and me. It’s usually called fascism ... I feel fed up now.