How We Met: Laurie Taylor and John McVicar

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The Independent Culture
LAURIE TAYLOR: We met in the maximum security wing of Durham prison in 1968. There'd been a riot, apparently, and sociology classes were part of a new liberalisation programme. The prisoners weren't allowed notebooks and I wasn't supposed to say anything that might, as they put it, touch on their lives, but it meant a bit of extra money for me so I took it on.

I remember being escorted by prison guards through labyrinths of corridors and locked doors with guard dogs and people peering at me through spy-holes, all the way to E Wing, where seven or eight discontented and vaguely familiar-looking men were slouched back in their chairs wearing what-the-fuck-do-you-want expressions.

I thought I recognized Charlie Richardson, Wally Probyn, Bruce Reynolds, John McVicar - all very famous and notorious criminals - and I just started talking about Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic and the rise of capitalism. I thought John was quite the nicest person in the group. He was positive and very sharp - he'd obviously read a bit - and yes, I liked him right away.

The next time I went there he'd escaped, which was a fairly dramatic way of avoiding my second lecture on the Protestant Ethic, and the papers were full of Britain's most wanted man and John's mug shots. Then I got a letter from him. Apparently he'd kept up his subscription to New Society, and he thought he'd set me straight on a few mistakes in an article I'd written for it. I couldn't write back, obviously, but I held a little house meeting where I was living at the time, saying we'd all have to be sworn to secrecy and get the attic ready in case he wanted to hide out with us. I found it all very romantic, and it seemed right, with me being a criminologist, to actually know a criminal.

I called myself a Marxist at the time and I had this romantic notion that certain notorious criminals were heroic models of how people could attack capitalism. I found John McVicar ideally suited to that role, being an adventurous, confrontationist criminal, a bank robber, you know, not some kind of con-man.

When he was recaptured I started to write a book about Durham prison, and we began a correspondence that went on for about 10 years. The funny thing about writing to someone in prison is you don't really remember what you've said to them because your life is changing all the time. And their's isn't, so they do remember. John became a sort of yardstick to remind me of myself. He knows me better than I know myself.

By the time he came out, I didn't really have any idea what he was like. I think I rather assumed he must be pretty big and aggressive-looking, with a full head of hair. So he wasn't the John he was supposed to be, this small man with not much hair. I was quite disconcerted. So I dropped the adventurous hero idea and thought of him as a collaborative researcher. Another bloody stereotype. But that's what we tried to do and it was a diabolical mistake. We even lived together, which was worse. He's a terrible person to live with. Impossible. He had to have his tea made at a certain strength, he had to have this and that just so - all his habits were either prison habits or anti-prison habits and he had no idea of punctuality.

It's taken all these years to stop thinking of him as the adventurous hero, or the sociologist, or even as the famous armed robber. I don't want to be mawkish, but I think of him now as John. A friend with all the irritations and aggravations friends always bring into friendships.

For all my years in universities I've never met anyone so persistently full of ideas as John is; so persistently interested in everything. I talk to him on the telephone for an hour or more every day; if I don't, something's missing. We go on holidays together, he was best man at my last wedding, which was somewhat ironic as he doesn't believe in marriage and close relationships. I've had three wives since I've known John, but male friends do last a long time because they don't tear into each other's emotions. It sounds rather pretentious to quote Goethe, but it really is better to entertain our friends to news of the results of our existence than to burden them with accounts of how we feel. Well, what I've found is that once you've done the soul-searching bit there's nothing else to say, is there?

JOHN McVICAR: They must have scatted around some to get Laurie. Normally they'd just bring in some local college hack, but this was a professor who'd done his stuff on deviants. Laurie was the real thing. I felt lucky. People like me never get to see people like him in the flesh. I even remember what he talked about - Goffman's Asylums - and he was good, really good. So I met him inside a couple of times and then I went off on my merry way, robbing banks and trying to build up enough money to get to Brazil or somewhere. But I also bought Asylums and found it quite interesting.

It was bubbling away in the back of my mind that I'd come to the end of the line. When I got recaptured I decided not to escape any more and not to commit any more crimes. All I had to do was serve my time as constructively as possible, do the O-levels and A-levels and see what happened. I got to know a bit about Laurie through his letters and I suppose I utilised him because I got into Leicester University where he'd taught for a bit and they were really lovely to me.

We met again in London in 1978. Laurie never had very good taste in pubs and this was a really dreadful place. Not that I'm homophobic, but a gay pub's a really tainted thing for a criminal. You need a woman with you in a place like that. I don't think he even recognised me, but I did him. We had one drink and went on to Ronnie Scott's or somewhere.

It was a bit of a charmed life, then. I was full blast; a film going on and loads of book stuff. And Laurie was just there. I felt he was an equal really, despite the big imbalance between us in terms of achievement. We always had this jocular, intellectual kind of exchange. He'd just broken up with his second wife and he was ratting around and I was ratting around so we came in and out of each other's lives in terms of women. Laurie was always a great Miss Right merchant, always chasing women, always looking over the current Miss Right's shoulder for the next even righter one and I was always having to sort of counsel his rejects, keep them from killing themselves. We were into that swirl of taking our women out together, having a meal, going to some party or other; all that male chauvinism thing. It just tripped along like that.

For us it was never an emotional thing. We talk about things intimately, but on a factual basis. We're not concerned with each other's problems or emotions. I mean, I might say I'm pissed off with this son of mine, and he'll listen, but it'll be dealt with intellectually, plus with the assumption that we'll try and be funny about it if we possibly can.

If we deal with each others' foibles and weaknesses it would never be head-on. We send each other up, like when I get compulsive about training for a marathon or something and it's taking over my life and I start looking like a skinned rabbit, he'll ridicule me, telling people I've got Aids and isn't it a shame. We don't challenge each others' failings, that's a sort of unwritten rule.

We don't motive-monger. It's all on the surface; both of us love the surface, we love the act, we're not interested in how the act is constructed. We don't uncover our inner souls, we don't nit-pick. I think you need friendships where you're not distracted by interests, so we don't share many things. We don't fancy the same women, we write entirely differently, we don't compete, we don't fall out.

I guess we try to do the best for each other in terms of being sounding-boards. Maybe I'll fax him something I'm working on and he'll tell me where I've crow-barred an idea. I like to think I might do a similar service for him, but he's a bit more of a prima donna than I am so I don't get the chance. He's a bit of a paid mouth. He quite likes taking up an unpopular argument and presenting it in a way that makes it impossible to knock down. I'm not as cavalier as that. I mean, I'm not nearly so accomplished.

If we get ratty with each other we back off before it gets out of hand; before things are said that can't be forgotten. It's been very easy for me to get a bit sour and jealous of Laurie because he's been a consistently high earner and I've really hit the skids with money. But Laurie's really cunning. He won't let you lay anything on him that's dirtily motivated. Any time I'm tempted to give in to self-pity and envy he just picks it up and throws it back so fast it's left me gasping.

You have to be so careful in friendship not to overstep the mark, not to use inside knowledge. I have to be strict with myself not to let the nasty side leak into the relationship. You have to have good will. But there isn't just good will in any human being. Not completely.-

(Photograph omitted)

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