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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.)

Another List

I recently came across this list of ten of the best Scottish fiction books. (A bit late I must admit. It was produced five years ago by the Irish Times on the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum.)

The ones in bold I have read.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)
Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981)
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (1989)
Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington (1992)
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner (1995)
Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)
Day by A L Kennedy (2007)

Most of the usual suspects appear here. Trainspotting is the only one I haven’t read.

The list seems to be biased towards more modern novels. Remarkable for its absence is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (now nearly 100 years old, however.) I doubt that’s an omission any such list produced in Scotland would make, though.

Scotland’s Favourite Book Update

You may have noticed from my sidebar I am currently reading Val McDermid’s The Wire in the Blood.

This is my latest from the list of Scotland’s Favourite Books I posted about here.

Of the thirty books shown there that will be 27 I will have read, the only exceptions being:
An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell which being written in Gaelic I could not attempt except in translation,
Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, which simply does not appeal to me, and
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

That last is, along with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, one of only two books to appear on all four lists of Scottish books I have slowly been working my way through.
(The other lists are:- the 100 best Scottish Books; the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books; the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.)

I have long doubted that Trainspotting could be as good as Sunset Song and have so far resisted its charms. One day I suppose I’ll bite that bullet but for now The Wire in the Blood is the last from this particular list.

Progress in Scottish Reading

A suitable post for St Andrew’s Day.

You may have noticed on my sidebar that I am reading Neil M Gunn’s Young Art and Old Hector.

This is one of The Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

Of the thirty books that were actually listed on that now defunct web page this means I will now have read twenty-nine (having made that my Scottish reading project for the year.)

The only one from that Herald list I have so far missed is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, which has appeared on all four lists I’ve been working from* – a distinction it shares only with the otherwise incomparable Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

For some reason I have a reluctance to tackle Welsh’s book. I have seen the film that was made from it and wasn’t overly enthused. I’ll get round to it sometime.

*Those four lists:-
100 best Scottish Books;
The Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books;
Scotland’s favourite books;
and The Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read (from 2005.)
This last is the one I shall be working from next year. I’ll post the list in the new year.

Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi

One World Classics, 2008, 158 p.

 Young Adam cover

Another from the list of 100 best Scottish Books. This one was first published in 1954 and amended in 1961.

Young Adam is structured in three sections. In the first we find narrator Jim working on a canal barge on the morning he and bargee Leslie fish a woman’s body from the River Clyde. The day’s events help trigger in Jim a desire for Leslie’s wife Ella. The remainder of this part dwells on the course of the resultant affair. Only once does Jim reminisce on a former girlfriend, Cathie, in an account of their first meeting.

Part two throws in a twist at its outset. Jim was present when the girl whose body he had helped retrieve fell into the water. This revelation immediately calls into question Jim’s motives and veracity. Moreover it was in fact Cathie, whom he claims to have met by chance on the fateful night. That he had ever known her is something he does not mention to the police. Plus he had taken pains to remove the fact of his presence from the scene. Later, he recounts a previous incident in which he had attacked Cathie, yet says they drifted apart a few weeks after. Then too there is his casual treatment of Ella who, the affair having been revealed, expects him to marry her. Her sister Gwendoline is more perceptive but still is not averse to having sex with him herself. Jim’s eye for women – he frequently dwells on their states of dress or, quite often, partial undress – thus becomes a signpost to his possible guilt.

Part three sees Jim attend the murder trial of the entirely innocent man the police have arrested in connection with Cathie’s death. (Only Leslie has been called as a witness.) Jim sends the judge a letter stating his knowledge of the facts of the case but knows it will make no difference.

As is usual with these things it is better to leave Stewart Home’s introduction till after reading the novel. In it he says that in his writing Trocchi was forging a new kind of novel and is important as a proto-postmodernist. Irvine Welsh has called Trocchi “the George Best of Scottish literature.” Whether this is because of his talent or that his compulsions undermined it (or both) is not vouchsafed. The introduction also tells us Young Adam was first published under a pseudonym as a “dirty book.” While there are sex scenes in this edition there is little to justify that tag to modern readers, nothing truly graphic (though Trocchi did write pornography for his 1950s publisher.)

Pedant’s corner:- velours is nowadays more often velour, wains (weans) plus four instances of missing punctuation.

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