HUGH COLLINS - writer, sculptor and one-time resident of Barlinnie Special Unit - is a bit of a blether. And, with two volumes of autobiography behind him, the man for whom telling stories was a means of survival is having a bash at writing fiction. Words: Allan Radcliffe
tlgh (‘ollins‘ debut noyel Nu Sum/w is a gritty. comic
insight into the criminal underworld of mid-l‘)7()s‘
Glasgow. Against a scrupulously designed landscape of flares and llick-kniyes. (‘ollins dispassionately introduces us to his assorted psychos. toe-rags and tarts-withotlt-hearts. allowing tls just enough time to witness their foxy schemes and random acts of brutality before they are quickly and mercilessly dispatched. Though (‘ollins~ characters are grotesqties. and much of the boost yiolence is cartoonish (also featured are a pair of psychotic policemen called Tom and Jerry) his noyel is light years away from the besuited. altar boy posturing of most British gangster films.
‘I didn‘t want this book to be one of those crime things where everyone looks like the Kray twins in Armani stlits.‘ agrees Collins. 'And I get sick of seeing endless TV programmes about the cop with a heart of gold. The criminal world in Glasgow as I knew it was small. btlt there were a lot of great characters in it and I wanted to recreate that world faithfully while sending it tip as much as I could.‘
(‘ollins‘ writing. particularly his talent for recreating working-class Glasgow dialects. has already been compared favourably with the likes of James Kelman and William Mclly'anney. lloweyer. unlike the majority of writers contributing to the current renaissance in Scottish crime fiction. the criminal underworld is a place (‘ollins
youth iny'olyed in petty crime. (‘ollins was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977 for the murder of an associate.
lidinburgh with his artist wile Caroline. and diyides his time between giant stone sculpture and writing.
Unlike the taxi driver in I’ll/p lit-lion. l‘y'e resisted broaching the Speedboat- winning question — ‘What does it feel like to kill‘." — though (‘ollins is open and tip front about his time in prison. Indeed. it was while in Barlinnie that he really began to indulge his passion for reading.
‘When I was in the jail. you couldn‘t get peace to read a book. it was 24-hour chaos with folk screaming and shouting all the time.~ he says. 'So you would assault a screw and get put in the punishment block for three to six months and that would give you peace to read a book. Ironically. it was also the only part of the prison with a decent library..
It was also while in Barlinnie that (‘ollins met another
notorious criminal-turned—writer. Jimmy Boyle. Though Boyle and Collins are no longer friends. it was the work of his
6 THE LIST 9. a: Any:
‘You would assault a knows intimately. llaying spent most of his screw and put in the RI 1 I g m I I‘ _ punlshment eeaset on baroem “2. ie now lyesm would give you peace to read a book’
8 1y] ( ) K E 77?} ///'//.;
former jail-mate that led (‘ollins to keep the diary that was ey‘enttlally' to tley'elop into his memoirs :luhdiluent/thy ()l .-l .lltm/ert'r and Hill/ting .Illl'uy‘. l.ike .limmy Boyle. ('ollius has been criticised by the tabloids. groups like Victim Support and the fatnin of the man he murdered. for haying made a hying out of his criminal memoirs. 'l’hough remorseful. he remains determined to continue with his chosen career.
'I took a lot of stick with the first two hooks. but I'm not out to offend and. let‘s face it. no one else is going to git e me a jobf he says. ‘I regret what he done and I can understand folk's griey'ances 7 it must be terrible to haye people in your family murdered. I would apologise to the family ot the man I killed. btit don't expect me to go down on my knees to the tabloid press because they‘re encouraging people to seek reyenge and it makes a nonsense of the whole idea of rehabilitation.‘
While (‘ollins cites Scots .lames Kelman. lry‘ine Welsh and Tom Leonard as being among his literary heroes. he admits lo haying been strongly influenced by American writers such as ‘beats‘ .lack Kerouac and William Burroughs and ll'lu'le lime author .lack London. His greatest inspiration. howeyer. remains his wife ('aroline.
'She‘s yery encouraging about eyerything I do. There‘s no way I would haye made it on the outside if I hadn‘t met her because I‘d haye had fuck all in my life otherwise. like so many of the folk that end tip in jail.’
Now. haying suryiyed the hell of prison life. seyeral life— threatening beatings and tabloid persecution. (’ollins is facing his toughest challenge yet. the monster that can reduce eyen the hardest of hard-men to quiyering wrecks the lidinbtu'gh Book l'iestiy'al.
':\y'e. [We got the fttekin horrors about that.‘ he admits. ‘lispecially because I‘m on jtlst after Gore Vidal of all people. I think I‘m going to hate to take a couple of yaliumf
No Smoke is published by Canongate on Tue 14 Aug; Hugh Collins appears at the Edinburgh lntemational Book Festival on Thu 16 Aug.