What the life of a gangster-turned-artist reveals about violence – Jim Duffy

Jimmy Boyle, pictured here in 1998, was given a life sentence for murder in 1967 and became an artist in prison (Picture: Adam Elder)
Jimmy Boyle, pictured here in 1998, was given a life sentence for murder in 1967 and became an artist in prison (Picture: Adam Elder)
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Jimmy Boyle was a hero to the ‘hard boys’ at the back of the bus when Jim Duffy was a teenager. Unlike Boyle, some of them paid the ultimate price for a life of violence.

Jimmy Boyle is a name that many reading this will remember with disgust and resentment. While others when they hear his name will recall a man who changed for the better. Simply that...

I recall getting on the school bus from Kilbirnie to Kilwinning the morning after STV screened “A Sense of Freedom”. The boys up the back of the bus were buzzing about what they had seen the night before on TV.

They talked about how “hard” Jimmy Boyle was as portrayed by the actor David Hayman. These boys loved the sound of the punches landed as street fights took place on the film. As I watched and listened to them, I distinctly remember how fascinated they were and how in awe they were of the gritty realism of a violent man. Wearing their Doc Marten boots with yellow laces and black stay press trousers, the boys at the back of the bus had a new hero.

But, it was different for me.

I had not seen the film about Jimmy Boyle’s life the previous evening. I guess it had been on too late and my parents perhaps deemed it too violent or not suitable for a young teenager. I didn’t get to see David Hayman extort money from Glasgow publicans. I didn’t get to see men being “slashed” with open razors. I didn’t get to see bad men do bad things. I didn’t need to. I grew up with a whole team of them day in, day out. Yes, many of the boys at the back of my bus would end up in prison or dead. And, to be honest, I didn’t care as quite a few of them were bastards. Angry, selfish, bully types who would pick on weaker souls – just because they could. And I knew then that one day they would get their comeuppance.

READ MORE: How Jimmy Boyle went from violent gangster to leading artist

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I’ve never really considered what happened to any of these boys until now. Jimmy Boyle’s film popped up on Netflix this week. I watched it. I almost felt for him for just one minute as I watched some of the more upsetting scenes.

But, then I remembered how these men worked. Boyle was a criminal. Boyle was a knife carrier. Boyle was a murderer.

While other prisoners did their time, he had to be the big man proving a point. He couldn’t just do his stretch, he had to rebel and along the way hurt and maim prison officers who were just doing their jobs. That has been my stance all week even as I chatted with chums.

The question of ‘were people born bad or did their environment make them bad?’ became a full-blown debate. While my mates were pretty fair-minded, in that they believed people were not born bad, I had no such thoughts. Remember, I had grown up with some very bad boys, many of whom ended up in borstals at the time. They were bullies who had caused me stress on many an occasion, so – no – they were born bad and that was that.

I had taken an entrenched position, probably because I still had some of the old police officer sentiment within me. Then I was asked: “What about that documentary you watched, the one about Jimmy Boyle?”

Whether you agree that James Boyle, the sculptor and author is now a changed man or simply opportunistic, lucky or a mixture of all, there is no doubt that something happened to change him.

The film shows his mum as a sweet lady, so it didn’t look like he was beaten up and not well cared for as a boy. Boyle cried as most men would, in his cell, when he was told that his mother had passed. So, did his home-life make him violent? It certainly did not look that way. Maybe he just got into the wrong crowd then? Whatever happened, he was jettisoned into a brutal existence where dog eat dog was his code – until he was given the opportunity of the Barlinnie Special Unit.

It seems his experience in this unit upended Boyle’s life of violence, especially towards prison officers. From here, he wrote his first book and became interested in art. The rest is history and well documented by him.

He has married again, lives a very comfortable life in the sun and every now and then the Guardian newspaper gives him and his story some column space. He is an older man now who has reflected on his life and made a better one for himself. But, could this transformation have been possible earlier? Or did it take the Special Unit to make him see how futile and useless all his violence was to him and others?

If I had dared get off my seat on the school bus, venture up the back and ask the boys there if bullying, violence and threats was the best way to live their lives, I’d have been well and truly battered. That was the life they were leading.

But, we were all on the same bus going to the same school. We all lived in a steel-working town together. I did not have the violence and “square go” mentality in me, but they did. I wonder could an intervention earlier, instead of increased “guidance” classes at school, been more helpful to them in steering them away from street-fighting, housebreaking and ultimately jail.

I’ve learned that one particularly nasty piece of work from the back of the bus died some years back. He was brutally attacked and never recovered. I knew it was always going to go that way for him or some other poor soul he would murder. He was not so lucky.

I’m glad James Boyle is a changed man and has had the opportunity to document his failings and what saved him.

But, he is just one man who got out alive. Unfortunately, and it is a sad fact of life, there are thousands of “Jimmy Boyle” bad boys out there and not enough “Special Units” to offer them their sense of freedom.