The hard man of sculpture: The Deborah Ross Interview

He's partial to Donna Karan, owns a nice place in Cannes and loves pansies. He's an artist and writer of note. Meet Jimmy Boyle, no longer Scotland's most violent man
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Jimmy Boyle - ex-lifer, and once "The Most Violent Man in Scotland" - is a very successful sculptor, and a rich man these days. He mostly lives in Edinburgh, in a magnificent, 12-roomed, seven-balconied house done up in Mediterranean-style terracottas and blues. It also has a lovely, landscaped garden, complete with ponds, a verdigris fish fountain thingy, pebbly bits with palm trees sticking out and a deliciously twee wheelbarrow planted with winter pansies. Is this, I ask, what kept you going through all those years in solitary, Jimmy? The thought: One day, I will get out of here and have an old wheelbarrow filled with winter pansies? I WILL NOT LET THEM BREAK ME! He laughs heartily, throwing his head back. There are quite a few spooky scars on his neck, I note. "Oh aye," he says, "it was the thought of pansies that kept me going. Oh aye. Ha Ha!"

Jimmy Boyle is 55, and quite a compact man with white hair and very blue eyes. He is, today, divinely dressed - a deep blue Donna Karan navy shirt ("she's my favourite designer..."), gold Cartier glasses, little Italian boots of such expensively soft leather you can see his toes fluttering from within. He has another house in the south of France. He drives a glittering red Rolls Royce and a glossy blue BMW. He and his wife, Sarah, a psychiatrist whom he met and married while still in prison, have two children - Suzi,14, and Kydd, 11 - who go to private schools and have piano lessons. "I'm very strict about the piano lessons." He likes good food, and is something of a gourmet cook. "The last meal I made? Lemon chicken with green garden peas. That's fresh green garden peas." He tried to do lobster recently, buying a live one from his fishmonger. "But when I put it in the boiling water, it screamed," he recounts with horror, yet no irony. "It then stuck a claw out. It was awful." He keeps an excellent wine cellar. "I like Burgundy and Bordeaux. Plus champagne, of course."

In the end, we go for an impromptu lunch at a Spanish restaurant in town, where he orders the most expensive wine on the wine list. He then tries to pay with one of his glinting credit cards, but I suddenly decide I won't have it. I can be quite showy, too, in my own little way. We fight over the bill.

"Mine."

"No. Mine."

"No. Mine."

"Listen," I am finally forced to say, "I have something of a violent past myself. I used to make my little sister play Who Can Keep Their Hand In Really Hot Water The Longest, you know. And while I never knew the Krays as such, I once sat opposite the Krankies on a train to Manchester." This puts the wind up him and he surrenders. "OK, OK, you pay," he cries. It wasn't very pleasant having to sit opposite the Krankies all the way to Manchester. But in terms of later using the experience as a tool of intimidation, I have always found it works quite magnificently.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is that Jimmy now leads a very good life - and visibly so. He enjoys it, I'm sure. Who wouldn't? But I think in Jimmy's case it's not just about enjoyment. It is also, I think, an act of revenge, and possibly quite a brilliant one, if not the ultimate one. For most of his life, he has seen things in terms of Them and Us. Us was his ma and his brothers and his mates from the Gorbals, with whom he progressed from vandalism and thieving to running money-lending rackets, slicing-up late payers and, finally, murder. He was convicted in 1967 for the killing of a rival hoodlum, Babs Mooney, who was sliced open from forehead to abdomen. He still maintains that while, yes, he did slash Babs about a bit, he didn't kill him. It was a mate of his who did. But he couldn't grass him up. His mate was one of Us.

Them? Well, first teachers and the police, then prison officers and governors. While serving his life sentence, he got an additional six years for attempting to murder six prison officers in one go, and a further six for attacking another. So he was always fighting, fighting, fighting Them, but never triumphing. Now, though, he has triumphed. His good life. His designer shirts. His villas. That, I imagine, really gets to Them. Any truth in this, Jimmy?

"Oh aye," he says, happily. "It is revenge. It's revenge on people who don't understand that people can change, and change for the better. Because of the way I am now, I am a target. I'm not talking of targets in the criminal sense. I'm a target for the authorities. People in the prison system are much more comfortable living with failure than success. They are quite happy for people to go in and out of the system. I am probably the biggest success the Scottish prisons have ever had, but they won't let me go into one of their prisons. Instead of taking kudos from what I've become, their attitude is that I somehow beat the system."

I know some people have a problem showing the likes of Jimmy Boyle any kind of reverence, but I think this is nonsense, frankly. He is an intelligent man. He has a lot to say about the culture that produces violent criminals, and the system that consistently fails to redeem them. Plus he has a certain integrity. He has set up The Gateway Exchange in Edinburgh, which helps disadvantaged addicts. The proceeds from his bestselling, gripping autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, which he wrote in prison in 1977 on an old Olivetti "while still teaching myself to type", also went to various good causes. He does not want, he says, "to prostitute" his experiences. He rarely gives interviews, and is only doing so today because he has written his first novel, and has been persuaded to plug it. The novel, Hero Of The Underworld, is about a man released after many years in a criminal mental institution and yet manages to embark on a new kind of life. It is quite compelling - "I've heard it mentioned in the same breath as the Booker," says Jimmy, modestly - and he is a fine writer, I think.

Still, it is as a sculptor that he is mainly known. He has a studio attached to the house, and we wander over. He works in bronze, with a hammer and chisel. His most recent pieces have been inspired by the suffering in Rwanda and Bosnia. Lots of groups of elongated figures, with limbs entangled, and faces frozen in screams. I don't know much about art, being something of a cheerful, Athena poster sort of person, but can tell there is something emotionally powerful going on here. He sells to private collectors and galleries all over the world, but never in Scotland, because he can't be sure that whoever is buying it is doing so because they like the work, or because of his notoriety. He will not sell to Saatchi. "Because I don't like what he does and can afford not to." He saw the Sensation exhibition when it came to Edinburgh and thought it "the biggest pile of rubbish" he'd ever seen.

He discovered sculpture when, in 1973, he was sent to The Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison, an experimental unit that focused more on rehabilitation than confinement, where prisoners were encouraged to express themselves without violence, and where Jimmy experienced his remarkable redemption. "One day they brought in a woman, an art therapist. A lot of prison staff were against it, saying we'd rape her. But the fact was we were impressed with her. We were combing our hair and saying things like: `Don't swear, or she'll no come back.' She was quite good-looking as well, and we hadn't seen a woman in years. One day she brought in seven pounds of clay and I just worked on it and did a portrait of one of the guys inside. It was like a dam bursting in me." His sculptures now sell for around pounds 10,000 each. The Special Unit has since closed. "They said it was too expensive to run." He adds that I must visit his place in Cannes. "There's a swimming pool and exotic garden, and I do throw the best parties there."

I ask him what his mum, Bessie, who died while he was still banged up, would have made of his transformation. He says: "I suppose it's the biggest regret of my life, that my mum's not here, and I have to live with the fact that I put her in an early grave. In a sense, the person I am now is the one she made me. The one thing she gave me was unequivocal love. And I don't mean that in a wishy-washy sense. She made great sacrifices for me and my brothers. Yet she didn't live to see the person she made. The last time I saw her, I was awaiting a High Court trial for attempted murder of a prison officer. I was taken to the visiting room by eight prison officers. My mum had cancer at this time, and she came in with my cousin Freddie, who'd been knocked down by a bus and crippled. When they came in, the vision of the two of them got to me, but I couldn't show any emotion. You can't in front of prison officers. I could have reached over and cuddled her, but I didn't. I just said: `Ma, this is too much for you, isn't it?' And for the first time, she said: `Aye son.' Ten days later she was dead."

There are tears in Jimmy's eyes. He loved his mum, all right. I say OK, I can see you're upset, but you had choices, didn't you? You could have spared her all the pain. You didn't have to do bad things. He says he did. The culture he grew up in dictated it. He never had any choices. He says: "I began my life sentence the day I came out the womb." He says this is not an excuse. It's reality. His dad had been a safe-blower who was killed in a mob fight when Jimmy was five. He has few memories of him. "And the more I've found out about him, the more I don't like him. I was told one story that was too much for me. My auntie told me she remembers my mum ironing a shirt for him, because he was going out, and then after he left she looked out the window, and saw him going off arm-in-arm with his girlfriend. My mum shouted at her. My dad then came up and said to my mum: `Don't you ever fucking embarrass me again like that.' That was the brutal world they lived in."

His mum brought up the four boys - Jimmy's older brothers, Pat and Tommy, and his younger brother, Harry - in one room and one kitchen in a Gorbals tenement. She did three cleaning jobs to support them, leaving the house at 5am and returning at 9pm. She always, Jimmy remembers, smelled of "detergent" and had "these wrinkled hands from all the washing". Jimmy was largely allowed to run free in a community that did not entirely disapprove of crime or violence. In some ways, these were the only things that could make you somebody. "As kids we'd hang around the chippie, and the chip man would kick our arses for it and tell us to get out of it. Then Big Ned, the hard man of the street, would come along and get a load of fish and chips, and say, `come in, boys', and get us fish suppers, too, without having to pay for any of it. So we learned who got respect." By the time Jimmy was eight, he'd already perfected a James Cagney kind of walk. It was just a short step from there to breaking into shops, doing in chewing gum machines, then stabbing a boy in the face with a butcher's knife during his first gang fight.

I am quite keen to know what it feels like to knife somebody. How did you feel afterwards, Jimmy? "I just felt relieved it wasn't me who copped it. All my mates were saying: `Brilliant, you sorted him out.' But then someone else would come up and say that's fucking nothing, you only scratched him. So the stakes intensified the whole time."

Did you ever think you were doing something morally wrong? "You never thought about whether it was the right way to live or the right thing to do. If you've got nothing, then being a great thief or great fighter is something. I remember, when I was in solitary in prison, this guy calling out: `Jimmy, brilliant headline in the Express today. You're Scotland's most violent man.' And I felt like a hero. I felt the absolute tops."

Did you ever feel remorse for anything you did? "That's one of the things I had to think about in the Special Unit. I was fundamentally broken down by the time I arrived there, and knew I could not build myself up again without looking very hard at everything I had done. And I did, yes, feel remorse for the harm I'd caused people. Not only the people I was violent to, but their families, and my family. It's not a nice thing to have to live with."

What were the Krays like? "They put me up in a safe house in London when they were looking for me for the murder. They were obviously power houses in their time. When you went with them, you never had to put your hand in your pocket. They were great hosts. And although the mythology says Ronnie was barking, I didn't get any hint of that." In the flesh, were they as scary as the Krankies? "Maybe not!''

I wonder how he views his past. He says it is still very much a part of him, but it isn't who he is any more. That said, it can resurface to batter him from time-to-time. Prior to meeting Sarah, he'd had two children - Tricia and Jimmy - by a woman who he was going out with at the time of his life sentence. Tricia is "doing alright", but Jimmy, a heroin addict and dealer, was murdered four years ago by another dealer. Jimmy blames himself entirely for his son's death. "I let both those children down... two kids I'd abandoned and didn't give a thought to. I don't blame the boy that murdered Jimmy. I hope that boy can manage to sort his life out and get on with it. If I had been what I should have been, my son would not have been where he was, and would not have been killed. I abandoned my responsibility as a parent, and that is the biggest responibility one has. I'm a better father now than I could ever have been." Suzi and Kydd know all about his past. "I couldn't not tell them." And? "I'm their dad and they love me."

We part after the lunch. "Thanks," he says politely. I am kissed on both cheeks. He even smells expensive. He goes back to his lovely house and pansy-filled wheelbarrow. I get the flight back to London, inspired by Jimmy's transformation, and filled with remorse for my own cruel past. I phone my little sister, who says she'd most certainly forgive me if she didn't still HATE me so much. I say that if you believe in original sin, then you have to believe in redemption. She says: "Go away. I'm watching Animal Hospital." I feel we are reconciled at last. Like I said, I think Jimmy Boyle has quite a lot to teach us all.

`Hero of the Underworld' is published by Serpent's Tail on 4 Feb, pounds 9.99

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