My dad the inmate (part 4)

In the final instalment of his brilliant and deeply personal series, our writer reflects on how prison turned his father away from violent activism


As you would expect, being in prison changed my father. Aside from shaving several stone off his weight – due to the authorities being ill-equipped, or more likely unwilling to accommodate his vegan diet (aside from providing cornflakes drenched in tomato ketchup) – his incarceration had a profound impact on his animal rights activism. Everything had to be scaled back. There would be no more direct action; certainly nothing illegal.

Years later, he would often shudder at the memory of his time in Barlinnie and vow never to do anything that would put him back inside. He enjoyed life (from time to time) and didn’t want to be locked in a cell when one of those higher times came calling. Indeed, given his enthusiastic appreciation of one aspect of existence – womanhood – and daunting (to his son) abilities with the majority of females with whom he came into contact, I once jokingly asked him how he coped with celibacy in jail. For the first two weeks, he said, he was indeed bouncing off the walls, but after that, “all I wanted was a cuddle.” It was warmth, not heat, he craved. He would often reiterate that the lack of human contact was the thing he feared most having to again endure.

I recall getting a letter from him once. It was written on lined, flimsy, prison-issue paper and bore a “HMP Barlinnie” stamp. All I can remember of the letter is how meek he sounded; how cowed. This man, who had terrified me throughout my life; whose violence towards my mother had turned him into the only monster I have ever known – causing us to be estranged to this day – sounded like that penpal we all had when we were 10; keen to please; to be pals.

He would often reiterate that the lack of human contact was the thing he feared most having to again endure

But there was a time when he still had all the confidence of never having been removed from his understanding of humanity; when, to achieve his stated goal of a world where animals are not mistreated for our amusement, nourishment or clothing, caution was thrown not just to the wind, but into the teeth of a gale; when direct action meant just that. In his early years as an activist, when I was about 16, my Dad invited me along to spend the day with his group of hunt saboteurs, who called themselves the A-Team. I recall bouncing across fields in his brown Morris Maxi, chasing the hunt. His acolytes were all in their late teens or early 20s and clearly gazed at my father in wonder; to them he was some sort of anarchist guru; The Man who turned. Unlike my feelings for him, theirs were far from mixed.

We would try to get ahead of the hounds and, by blowing klaxons and hunting horns, do our best to put the dogs off the scent. I thought it was the most exciting thing in the world.

And I’m certain a lot of those times have coloured much of my thinking and politics ever since. My dad once told a story of how he had been protesting peacefully in a village, near where a hunt was beginning. Once the hounds had passed, the horses and riders began to pass the group of “sabs”. The master of the hunt – who was a well-known, wealthy and respected member of the Scottish business world – then trotted past. He hawked up some phlegm and spat into the faces of my father and his group. Recalling this incident, my father would shake his head and say: “And that’s the cream of society, son.”

But after he was released from jail, his world moved away from courting such confrontation and toward raising awareness. At one point, it became all about websites and T-shirts, which probably saved his sanity, if not his life. And if he is still alive, he is probably still in his kitchen in Glasgow’s Partick, hunched over his badge-making machine. Just don’t ask him to break the law again.

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