A Sense of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle

Ebury Press, 2016, 312 p, plus vip Introduction by Irvine Welsh.

One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 A Sense of Freedom  cover

Boyle was at one time dubbed by tabloid newspapers as the most violent man in Scotland. The book is an account of his life and, in part, a description of why he feels that designation was perhaps unwarranted. Not that he was in any way a shrinking violet. I most likely would never have read this had it not been on that 100 Best Scottish Books list. That the book is there is most probably due to the light it shed on the conditions inside Scottish prisons during the author’s various incarcerations, his attempts to stand up against them and the violence to which he was treated in order to control his (and other unco-operative – ie recalcitrant – prisoners’) behaviour, his rebellions against the system and those upholding it at times channelled into what have come to be known as “dirty” protests.

The early parts dealing with Boyle’s childhood and early adolecscence had echoes of No Mean City – back courts, middens, rooms-and-kitchens, single ends, initiation into crime and violence – not least in the self-imposed pressure to act up to the stereotype of the hard man. Boyle’s slide into a life of crime was compounded by poor schooling combined with lack of expectations, and an apparent relative ease of committing petty crimes without detection. Despite his revulsion at young offenders’ institutions and Borstal, on coming out he quickly fell back into his old ways and progressed into more serious crimes.

He was twice tried for murder but acquitted the first time – and he claims he was unaware of and therefore not responsible for acts of intimidation against witnesses which occurred while he was on remand. By his account he was innocent of the murder for which he was found guilty and suggests that evidence against him was planted by the police who also put pressure on witnesses to testify against him. But after that earlier acquittal (and no doubt because of his reputation) they were out to get him. (In the afterword to this edition he provides the identity of the real culprit; something he had not done when the book was first published in 1977. Honour amongst thieves, and all that.) For that reason and the harsh conditions inside, he saw police and prison officers both, as enemies and acted accordingly. The same is obviously true in reverse. He was seen, justifiably, as a danger.

His life was turned round when he was taken in by the Barlinnie Special Unit, set up to provide a more ameliorative means of coping with prisoners and to rehabilitate them. An art tutor left behind some modelling clay one day, Boyle worked with it and so found he had a talent for sculpture. Almost as an aside he reflects on the mutual incomprehension of the guards and prisoners; while the former still saw them as ravening wolves, he says it would never have entered the heads of the latter to harm any woman entering the unit as a visitor.

The Special Unit did not succeed with all its inmates and was the subject of suspicion by some in authority who thought it was ‘soft’ on prisoners. It closed in 1994. Irvine Welsh’s introduction to this edition laments its passing and the deterioration of social conditions in Scotland in the years since, the increase in drug use etc, the loss of an escape hatch via education, not to mention the overcrowding in prisons leaving them nothing more than containment facilities “with rehabilitation pretty much an afterthought.”

It has to be said, poor schooling and Boyle’s lack of interest in it or not, the book is well-written, even though it occasionally feels the need to define terms such as “steamie” and “altar boy” which are surely widely known, certainly in Scotland.

Pedant’s corner:- Lots of instances of singular nouns (such as “a group” or “each of us”) having a plural verb form. Otherwise; St Francis’ (St Francis’s,) scarey (scary,) near-alchoholics (near-alcoholics.) “Started cutting my on the back of the neck” (started cutting me,) “vocal chords” (cords,) “and took Ben away, leaving, me alone” (took Ben away, leaving me alone,) “Dostoevsky ,” (should have no gap between Dostoevsky and the comma,) “too much But” (either the full stop is missing, or, ‘too much but’,) discoloration (discolouration is surely to be preferred,) grill (grille,) Alex Stephen (elsewhere ‘Stephens’,) Parkhufst (Parkhurst.)

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