There will be two Jimmy Boyles on view again this month.
One is the ‘Hard Man’convicted of murder who spent six years of his ﬁfteen year sentence determined to the limit of physical endurance to be the ruthless, violent immovable ‘us‘ to what he saw as the equally violent ‘them‘ of the prison authorities. This is the Boyle, portrayed by Billy McColl, on the stage of Edinburgh‘s Royal Lyceum Theatre this month, at the start of the path that eventually leads via the Barlinnie prison Special Unit (the play’s Nutcracker Suite) to the other Boyle
Jimmy Boyle today is a good looking, amusing man of modest stature but considerable presence. He doesn‘t look his 42 years let alone like a man who fought his way through one of the toughest of Gorbals‘ upbringings and spent most of his life behind locked doors in a world of bloodin realised aggression. In prison he mentally and physically (with much brutality) resisted all attempts by the authorities to make him accept their regime. The reaction was notoriously harsh; five years of his sentence was spent in solitary; in the infamous ‘cages’ he covered his naked body in his own excrement in an attempt to discourage the ‘screws’ from beating him up; perhaps the ﬁrst ‘dirty protest‘.
Now he is neatly dressed in casual clothes looking a little like an off the track athlete - only the long but not prominent scar on his neck hinting at anything else. Lounging in the empty bar of the Lyceum with the co-writer of the play Andy Arnold for company, he looks quite at home.
‘ It is not the sort of place I would come to every month or even every year’, Boyle says ofthe Lyceum. ‘It is a bit decadent, poncy, but it is the people, like the administrator Ian Wooldridge who has come from TAG (the Citizens‘ touring :ompany), who are much more important.‘ In fact The Nutcracker Suite was not intended for a large stage originally and was conceived like Boyle‘s first play about prison life The Hard Man written with Tom McGrath as a very intimate piece,
Arnold who has given up his full time job with Edinbugh’s Theatre Workshop to concentrate on writing,
approached Boyle with the idea for the second play; ‘He had to convince me,’ says Boyle.‘I was sick of writing or doing anything with Jimmy Boyle
- and I promise this will be the last.‘
However it is a character, which has almost taken on mythical proportions, that can‘t be left alone: ‘I’ve always been fascinated in theatre based on real lives,‘says Arnold explaining why he was attracted to writing the Boyle story; ‘biographical theatre that tackles social issues’. But for Boyle himself, it is the social issues that are clearly more important.
‘It’s not necessarily just about Jimmy Boyle. I was attracted to doing the play because of the issues that I represent - it is another platform for me to air my views. It’s not a prison officer bashing play; much more it is prison ofﬁcers and
prisoners together bashing the
Jimmy Boyle talks to Nigel Billen about The Nutcracker Suite.
hierachy of the system’, says Boyle. For some who have followed the transition of Boyle from mean Glasgow criminal to dedicated social worker he has, by a dramatic device, too neatly come to terms with the violence in his past - violence for which he was in many cases directly responsible. The character that slashed people outside prison and was part of bloody riots inside is now an intellectualized player in a (for Boyle) more important drama which ﬁgures as its villain a society that, both inside and outside prison, gives people like Boyle little chance of living civilised lives.
‘The violence in my past is very much the violence that exists in the people in the sort of areas that I come from. The inspiring thing about the story ofJimmy Boyle is that there are talents that the educational system didn‘t try to explore, didn‘t try to develop.‘ The Gateway, Boyle’s centre in Edinburgh for deprived youngsters, some with prison sentences behind them, others with drug problems, is there Boyle says to ‘show that Jimmy Boyle is no exception. What I am saying is that it is a pity that I and so many others have gone to waste in the society we have to live in‘.
But Boyle has now, by dramatising and writing about his life, forced himself to live constantly along side The Hard Man, content to use his alter ego as a metaphor for society’s destructiveness. He is himself ‘a different person now‘ and one who can cope with with violence from others; ‘I deal with it quite a lot in real life now - I go to Glasgow at least twice a week now and violence is very much a part ofof the problems I tackle, and I don’t react to it - it’s no longer part of my personal agenda.
But, Boyle is sensitive and you can’t help feeling there is a personal involvement to the re-telling of his story in books and plays beyond the putting across of issues. Only last week, Boyle rushed to a SNP meeting to attempt to answer a criticism of the Gateway’s drug programme, demanding the right to reply but failing to obtain it. The need to puthis case in such personal terms could be the legacy of the years in prison when he had to suffer the mischievous writings of the press ; ‘It
was heaped upon me, and I had no
redress. I couldn’t talk back or respond to the things that were said about me by people in very responsible positions.’ He describes as a public disgrace the people who having held public ofﬁce have then attacked him in the press ‘prostituting‘ their ofﬁce and experience - ‘We’ve got to challenge and question society because if we leave it to them they will ﬁll their pockets and run.’
There is more than a hint of personal satisfaction (as well as a very genuine distress at what has happened to the Special Unit) when Boyle tells of the ex member of the Unit‘s staff that had come to him for a job reference. It is an endorsement of Boyle’s belief in the Special Unit which, like the about face of some politicians from his own city, who attacked him while in prison but now covet his appearances on the same platform, that amounts to a belated ‘right of reply’.‘They’re playing the game, not me; they’re changing their views, not me’, says Boyle.
Nevertheless, when the curtain rises on The Nutcracker Suite, Boyle will once again be putting himself and his character on view to the public. Despite the fact he says he has analysed himself till he is ‘blue in the face’ and ‘Iknow myselftill I’m sick ofseeing it‘, it is almost as if he needs the character to be portrayed on his own terms: ‘The point is I‘ve never had the chance to leave that Jimmy Boyle behind, despite the fact I say I never murdered anyone, I’m ‘Killer Boyle’ - I’ve got to live with it because if I don’t I‘ll crack up - and one thing is for fucking sure, they’re not going to do that to me. I‘ll take them on all the way] don’t care who they are. I’ll be positive and constructive but I know their game and I’m not going to fall for it. And if they can‘t cope with that then that’s their problem.‘
Jimmy Boyle is still ﬁghting, still holding out. Now only his goals have changed. He wants to change society but has rejected politics - ‘it corrupts‘ - and thus, he is left with his own resourceful toughness.
Our photographer wants to take him on to the balcony of the bar for a picture. Boyle offers to kick the door down to save us getting the key. Jimmy Boyle plays with his reputation, makes it the subject of his good humoured jokes but he knows that the same powerful tool used to put across issues is also partly a self imposed cross he has to bear - a constant reminder of his violent past which is by now public property. He seems to sense the uneasy relationship. He worries for his baby daughter who will have to grow up with the reputation but depite having the ﬁnancial security to bow out of the battle and live a more private life, he won’t. ‘What would I be running away for? I’d just be creating another prison for myself. I feel too big a commitment to waste my experiences.‘
He looks relaxed but inside he seems coiled tight ready to ﬁght for his social causes. ‘I hope there may come a time when I can say I have done all I can do but I think I may never be able to say that.’
Jimmy Boyle (foreground) with Andy Arnold, oo-writer of The Nutcracker Suite.
2 The List 4— l 7 October