Vinnie, man of letters

Renaissance man Vinnie Jones - hard nut of football turned film star, fisherman and A-list celebrity - has added penmanship to his list of accomplishments with his autobiography. A tough tale of bullying, petty crime, guns and nose-biting, the author hopes it will inspire us all. Whatever you say, Vinnie (and by the way, have you ever thought about taking up yoga?) The Deborah Ross Interview
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The Independent Online

I meet Vinnie Jones in a smart London hotel. He is with his assistant, Neil. I think Vinnie and Neil go way back. I think Neil might be Vinnie's "Five Bellies". Vinnie is reading Motor Boats Monthly. He's just bought a house on the coast of Ireland and now needs a motorboat to go with it.

"You can get an 'orse and boat for an 'undred grand," he says.

"You're getting a horse, too?" I ask.

"Nah! An 'orse and boat..."

"Will the 'orse pull the boat along, like those old barges..."

"AN AWESOME BOAT!"

"Oh."

I'm not sure this was the best start. Vinnie carries on reading for the next 90 minutes. Sometimes looking up to answer questions – and spooking me rather with his stunningly icy, feral-green eyes – but mostly just not bothering. This bored indifference is quite extraordinary, especially as I'm at my most sparkling today.

"Are you squeamish about anything, Vinnie?"

"Nah."

"So, for example, you'll pull off a Band-Aid in one big rip, rather than millimetre by millimetre?"

"Yeah."

"I thought so! I guessed as much!"

Neil, meanwhile, lies back against the back of the sofa and closes his eyes. I am minded to say: "Hope I'm not keeping you up," but then realise it's too late. He is already happily snoring. Perhaps I'm not at my most sparkling, after all. Perhaps, even, I'd bury myself in Motor Boats Monthly if I met myself today. Found a 'orse and boat yet, Vinnie? "Nah," he says. How much are you looking to spend? "Fifty, sixty grand." Maybe more, though, because "if I wanna boat, I'm gonna buy a boat. I'm building a pier at the end of the garden."

Vinnie Jones. Lovable rogue? Or mindless thug who got extraordinarily lucky? I'm not sure at this point. Although, I must say, I'm struggling to tune into his lovability. Shall I tell him to put the sodding magazine down? Probably, but frankly I don't dare. His temper, remember. His violent temper. He might bite my nose. And while my nose is nothing special, it does most of what it's meant to do (apart from look nice, that is). I try sickeningly hard to snare his interest. Fishing. He likes fishing. We'll talk about fishing. "Do you take your catch home, Vinnie, or throw it back into the water?"

"There's a lovely boat 'ere for seventy grand..."

"DO YOU TAKE YOUR CATCH HOME, VINNIE, OR THROW IT BACK INTO THE WATER?"

"Wha'? Oh. Throw it back."

Stupidly, I say I've always been perplexed by this. What's the point of going fishing and not coming home with anything? Isn't it like going shopping, finding exactly what you want, and then not buying it? My reasoning does not impress him. He spooks me with the eyes, then says: "It's the thrill of catching 'em, innit? If you just wanted to kill 'em, you could buy a lot of goldfish and just kill 'em. It's the thrill of catching 'em. The rod, the take..." He sighs. And goes back to his magazine. Flick, flick, flick.

I'm not doing very well here, I know. And I'm not sure what he wants me to take away from this meeting, if anything. I admire his gold bracelet. "Cartier," he says, without looking up. "My wife bought it for me. I bought her one, too, but with diamonds on it." This, actually, gets him going a bit. Yes, he loves spending money. And shopping. He likes going mad in Louis Vuitton with "my black American Express card. I say: 'I'll have two of those, four of those...' and their arseholes drop out..." He is looking out for a Bentley as well as a motorboat. "I just fancy one." He is very hot in Hollywood. "Quentin Tarantino barged through everyone at a party to meet me."

The place in Ireland (which comes on top of a million-pound Hertfordshire home and a $15,000-a-month rented job in Los Angeles) has enough land "for the kids to ride their quad bikes on". This sort of stuff seems to loosen him up. Then it occurs to me: perhaps, if he wants me to come away with anything, it's how much he now has. Because that makes him worth something.

Respect, I'd suggest, is a very big thing with Vinnie. And respect and wealth are, for him, intimately tied up. That is, the more you have, the more respect you can command. Perhaps he's like this because he was never respected as a footballer. Perhaps it's his big neh-neh-nenneh-neh. His successful footballing career (at Wimbledon and then Leeds United, mostly) was always seen as a triumph of will and physical intimidation (13 sendings-off, the famous Gazza incident) over any natural ability. Although, if you think about it, his physical presence is now paying off rather handsomely. From Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels through to Snatch and Gone In 60 Seconds (where he didn't even have any lines, until one little speech right at the end) his physical presence has been the performance. And this is a gift, I suppose. Certainly, he knows he's got it. "Everyone says I've got massive screen presence. The question now is: can I carry a film on my own?" Can you? "I would say I can." He's just finished shooting a remake of the Burt Reynolds American football classic from 1970, The Mean Machine, in which he plays the lead. It doesn't come out here until Boxing Day, but he's seen it and "it's bloody brilliant". What would a failure mean to you now, Vinnie? "I'd be on the floor. I'd be bloody distraught." Which, actually, I think he would.

Anyway, we are here, ostensibly, to discuss his autobiography. He hopes it's inspiring. From the unlikeliest circumstances, he says, "I ended up in Hollywood, and I want to tell people how it's done." He is pleased with the photograph on the cover. "Everyone says I look like Paul Newman." Via the Krays, I suggest, jokingly. He looks up. Slowly. "Wha'?" Nothing, I say quickly. Do you think of yourself as handsome, Vinnie? "The Australians have just voted me the best looking man in Britain." That's nice. "Yeah." Is there anything you don't like about yourself, Vinnie? "Nah. I'm well chuffed with myself. There's a great little fishing boat 'ere. I'm gonna get this fishing boat." I thought you wanted a motorboat? "For the kids. A fishing boat for the kids!"

I'm curious about his interior life. Or what there might be of it. For example, where does he stand politically? He's a monarchist, he says – "I just fink they're class" – and a Tory "because they're patriotic, right?" Who does he want to win the leadership battle, Clarke or Duncan Smith?

"Is whatsisname out of it?" he asks.

"Portillo?"

"Yeah. Is he out of it?"

"He pulled out, Vinnie."

"Did he? Didn't know."

I ask him what laws he'd change if he became prime minister. "I'd change the tax laws."

"And do something about the health service. The health service is a disgrace," adds Neil, who has momentarily stirred.

"Yeah," agrees Vinnie. "I'd do it like America. Everyone would have to have health insurance. The hospitals in America are unbelievable."

And spiritually? Where does Vinnie stand spiritually? Does he believe in God? Yes, he says. "I just think that at the right times... if you ask for help... he will help." His wife, Tanya – whom he clearly worships – had to have a heart transplant at 21 when her heart collapsed during the birth of her daughter Kayley (from a previous marriage). Now, thinking of the drugs she has to take, the pain she's had to go through, doesn't that shake your faith a bit? "Nah. Because I believe I was meant to save Tanya." And she you? "Yeah. Probably."

Is this touching? Am I, finally, tuning into his lovability? Are we bonding? What bores you most, Vinnie? "INTERVIEWS!" Oh dear. Maybe not.

Kayley and Aaron, Vinnie's son from a previous relationship, are educated privately. Vinnie left school at 15 without sitting any exams or reading a book. He is proud that the children attend private schools. "They go to the theatre and the opera. A lot of my old mates have never been to the opera or theatre, and they're now 36." Does that matter? "Yeah. It's their education, innit?"

Maybe sending the kids privately works as yet another symbol of his worth. Or maybe he just wants them to have the sort of childhood he never had. "When I was growing up, money was a big thing for me and my sister. We always wanted things we couldn't have. Sweets. Ice-lollies. I looked forward to my first wage packet so I could buy a whole box of Cadbury's Flakes. Now, at home, we have a massive sweetie drawer, and you'll ask the kids: 'Want a sweet?' And they'll say: 'Nah.' You can leave £500 in cash around and not worry about it." Not worry about them nicking it? "Yeah."

He was born and brought up in Watford, where his father was a gamekeeper/builder. A culture of violence seems to underpin much of his childhood. His book is full of hidings inflicted on him, and those he inflicted – "I gave the bully a good pasting... there was always a ruck... I have to confess I loved it." He was handling guns when he was five – "guns to me were just an extension of my arm" – and merrily recounts blasting pigeons to pieces. "Dad had built a pigeon hide, and you can't imagine the excitement, the wide-eyed wonder of a five-year-old being taken by his father into that secret little place... he helped me position my body properly and I took aim... squeezed the trigger... boom!"

He became something of a pain at school. "I threatened to hurl bricks through the window, and told one teacher I wouldn't be at the school for much longer because I was going to burn it down." He thinks, probably, he'd have had a few spells in prison by now if it hadn't been for the football. "It kept me out of a lot of trouble. Kept me on the straight and narrow."

He has always found it hard to contain his anger, on the pitch or off it. Most famously, he badly bit a tabloid journalist's nose after the journalist said something rude. Afterwards, he felt so terrible that he went into the woods behind his house with a shotgun, intending to do himself in. (Or at least that's what he says in the book.)

Yet, two years later, he bit his neighbour's head. Something to do with a dispute over a stile. "Vinnie fixed me with his teeth and shook me like a rabbit," the neighbour complained.

Why, Vinnie?

"Me temper."

"Can you tell when you're going to lose it?"

"No. Although other people can. They say my eyes go."

"And once your eyes go, can you pull yourself back?"

"No. Once my adrenalin goes over that barrier, then I'm gone."

"Have you thought of yoga?"

"That's what Sting says I should do."

Anyway, it's time for me to be ejected. Vinnie's got to go to his tennis lesson – "It's with a pro" – and then he's meeting his dad to shoot rabbits. Neil's up and about, refreshed by his nap and fielding calls about Bentleys. "Nah, Vinnie don't want green. He wants silver." I wish Vinnie luck with his 'orse and boat.

Lovable rogue? Or mindless thug? You can all make your own minds up, frankly. I'm off for dinner at Guy and Madonna's. Actually, I'm not. But I kind of think Vinnie would have taken to me more if I were.

 

'My Life: Vinnie Jones' is published by Headline on 6 September at £16.99. 'Motor Boats Monthly' is available from all good newsagents and is a compelling read, from the look of it

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