Living on a knife edge


As Glasgow murderer Hugh Collins releases his controversial autobiography, Eddie Gibb uncovers the city’s violent legacy and profiles the writer following in the footsteps of another former Barlinnie lifer, Jimmy Boyle. Hugh Collins photograph by Steve Pyke.

nly London’s East End rivals Glasgow as a place where violence has become part of the culture, a place where fact and fiction mix to create a powerful mythology of hard men. Ever since Alexander McArthur and Kingsley Long called their lurid novel about razor gangs in the 305 No Mean City. the tag has stuck.

Some 60 years on. Maggie Bell is still croaking the words over the opening credits of Taggart. a television series that used its Glasgow location as dramatic shorthand for a certain kind of rough-hewn criminal environment. Last year’s 60s gang movie Small Faces; the saturation media coverage after the reopening of the Bible John files. and later this month. the publication of Autobiography Of A Murderer by former Barlinnie lifer Hugh Collins. are just three recent examples of this continuing fascination with Glasgow’s violent past.

Now BBC Scotland has given the pot another stir with an lit-S programme Tongs Ya Bass. named after the battle cry of the city’s most notorious gang as they went a-chibbing.

The fact that a history of Glasgow gangs from the 30s to present day should appear in an arts documentary slot. is an indication of the way violent men have been turned into icons of popular culture. Andrew O‘Hagan’s much praised book The Missing. published last year. used the Bible John murders as a kind of touchstone for his own memories of 'a West of Scotland childhood. This was murder treated as cultural event; ajournalist looking for some deeper significance of a killing rather than the more traditional ‘what. why. who and when’ of the critne reporter.

For these reasons. Tongs Ya Bass is nothing if not timely. though in truth a similar film could have been made at any point in the last five or ten years. Interest in Glasgow and violence goes in cycles. but never shows any signs of dying out. There will always be an ice-cream war or another ex-con writing a book about life on the mean streets to spark the whole thing off again.

One forensic psychologist who works with violent offenders in Scottish prisons. believes the nostalgia surrounding the 60s gangs relates to the period’s liberated social climate. and the fact there was perceived to be a code of honour operating among the gangs. even as they were slicing strips offeach other. ‘We tend to miss out all the negative bits.’ he says. ‘lt’s like the way Scottish football seemed better when you had Jimmy Johnstonc.’

The former provost of Glasgow who introduced the Mr Happy logo in the early 80$.

The reason violence In Glasgow holds such philosophy and the three-month a fascination is simply because it was, and still is, a violent city.

Michael Kelly believes changing the city‘s image from negative to positive was a key strategy in its revitalisation. There are some who would argue it was all about PR. but that‘s another story. Most importantly. he recognised that perceptions count. and can be hard to shift. ‘lt’s part of Glasgow’s history and people obviously do find that an attractive subject for literature and television.’ he says.

The reason violence in Glasgow holds such a fascination is simply because it was. and still is. a violent city. Those charged with promoting the city’s image to the rest of the UK and abroad argue with some justification that Glasgow gets an unfair rap; any city of a similar size is likely to have its share of violent crimes. Definitive statistical comparisons are hard to make. however.

What's for sure is that Strathclyde Police tacitly reinforces the idea that the city has a problem each titnc it launches one of its crime

crackdowns. which seem to arrive at the rate of

about one a year. Currently underway is the Spotlight Initiative. a version of the ‘zero tolerance‘ approach imported from America. ‘It is a policing

period which has jttst passed is simply the beginning of a new era of policing in Strathclyde.‘ said Chief Constable John Orr last month.

Figures in the wake of 1993’s high-profile Operation Blade knife amnesty show some success in tackling violent crimes from murder to serious assault after a peak in the previous year. However. there were still 74 murders in the fifteen-month period from January I995. compared to 70 in I993 and I994. suggesting such crackdowns have a rather marginal effect.

According to Rudy Crawford. a consultant surgeon in Glasgow Royal Infirmary‘s accident and emergency department. the hospital‘s violence-related admissions remain the highest in Scotland. And even if successive police crackdowns have managed to remove a few machetcs from circulation. there are still plenty out there. ‘Our reputation is justified even today. not just in terms of gangs but violence generally.’ Crawford says. ‘In the experience ofthis hospital it is a violent city.‘

Crawford is quick to add that only a tiny percentage of the population is ever involved in or exposed to violence. but the point is that successive generations of hard men have kept the Glasgow tradition ofextreme violence alive. As long as filmmakers and writers find an audience for their reports from these battlezoncs. the myth of Glasgow‘s past will continue to be nurtured by the present.

Tongs Ya Bass is on BBC 1, Mon [0 Feb, 10.10pm.

Scars of a MURDERER

‘IT‘S A FEATURE of this kind of memoir a villain's autobiography. a murderer remembering to dress up the nasty bits.‘ wrote Hugh Collins in a I994 edition of literary magazine Granta. ‘I don‘t want to prettify what was ugly.‘ Granta published an extract of what was to become Autobiography Of A Murderer. Collins's account of an adolescence dominated by violence in Glasgow. published later this month.

The fact that Scottish newspapers were falling over each other to secure exclusive rights to extracts from Collins‘s book. suggests the nasty bits are precisely what their readers want. Certainly the details are there. as Collins recounts exactly how he got the road map of scars which criss-cross his body and face. In one passage he describes how a school friend pinned his hand to a table with a carving knife.

In I973. Collins was released from Perth prison after serving a total of four years for violent crimes and arrived back in Glasgow to find rich pickings within the city's growing drugs scene. He found ‘naive hippy types’. alien to the world of knives. bayonets. open razors and guns. and began carving himself. literally. a share of the market.

Collins graduated from violent drug dealer to murderer when he stabbed William Mooney in a Glasgow pub on 7 April 1977. The two men had served time together in prison. and the stabbing was the brutal conclusion of a simmering feud. ‘I went for Mooney‘s arm and yanked it upwards. to give me a full. unobstructed view of his ribs. and then plunged the blade in between them. “Fuck you." I shouted. “Fuck you. fuck you. fuck you.”

Sentenced to life for Mobney's murder he served fifteen years Collins ended up in Barlinnie‘s Special Unit. whose most infamous prisoner was Jimmy Boyle. another Glasgow hard man who had graduated from street gangs to organised violent crime. ‘()n the second day Jimmy invited me into his cell.‘ Collins recounted. ‘You‘re fucked up. he said. You don't think you are. but you‘re completely fucked up . . . And he was right: I was completely fucked up.‘

Collins. now 45 years old and like Boyle. a sculptor. responded to the Special Unit regime which encouraged prisoners to take responsibility for their own actions. rather than simply hanging up rule-breakers in solitary. At Boyle‘s suggestion. he started writing about himself as a way of understanding what drove him to kill another man Boyle has been down the same path with his book A Sense Of Freedom. Collins was rated as one of the Special Unit‘s graduates with genuine talents and the resulting book swells that popular literary canon which uses real violence as its source material. Autobiograplrv ()f/I Murderer by Hugh C o/lius will be published by Macmillan at f I 5.99 on 2/ Feb.

The List 7-20 Feb I997 9