22 Nov 2014

The Glasgow Curse by William Lobban

The Glasgow Curse —  My Life in the Criminal Underworld, by William Lobban is a page turner right out of the starting gate.


In recent decades Scotland has produced some of the finest crime  fiction going.  But of course Scotland is also a hotbed of real crime, with Glasgow outpacing most of Europe when it comes to gansgters and its unenviable murder rate.  

Having praised Scottish crime fiction, however, none of it is as compelling as Scottish crime fact, and the best example of this for a long time is William Lobban's book The Glasgow Curse, published by Birlinn.

Putting aside any concerns about people profiting from crime, or doubts anyone may have about the fascination that leads us to lap up degrading stories of violence and robbery, this is still stuff we need to know about.  We can't turn our back on crime and pretend it isn't there, and when a great storyteller like William Lobban lays bare the social and psychological factors that lead a lad into a life of theft, violence and drug-dealing, we should pay attention.

There is a fair amount of theft and violence in The Glasgow Curse, but due to the circumstances of William Lobban's life, it isn't so much a criminal biography, as it is a prison memoir.

This is because so much of Lobban's life has been spent inside many Scottish and English nicks, and so while there are many details about life in the gangs of Glasgow, and criminal schemes and thefts, the real meat of the book is a look at our country's Offender Management Service — its shortcomings, its horrors and the minutiae of its day to day.  You will also learn a lot about what prison staff have to put up with, and of course, it is not bonnie.

This isn't surprising in part — William Lobban was actually born in a prison — and that is something you really could not have made it up.

Much of The Glasgow Curse you wouldn't even want to make up.   The first killing comes only a few pages in and describes what happened when members of one gang of children, the Goucho from Carntyne, caught a boy from another gang, the Powery.
This took place up on the railway line.  They brutally killed the boy with hatchets and pick shafts.
There are many meaningless deaths in the book and as the story progresses they mount up with a grim inevitability.  In crime fiction, people die in elaborate plots and often for grand or complicated reasons.  In real life, they are often killed over pointless rows, misunderstandings, or simply because there are too many mad bastards on the loose.

Much of as I have said, you could not make up: the meat cleaver that William Lobban managed to smuggle into his cell, which is still on display at a HM Prison Service training facility; the amazing one man seige that Lobban conducted at Perth Prison, which resulted in major changes in the security provisions for Scottish prison staff.  And while none of it is fiction, or even presented in a fanciful manner, The Glasgow Curse was also written to set the record straight regarding stuff that other people have made up — notably a guy called Paul Ferris.

THE FERRIS CONSPIRACY

To offer a quick way in to this aspect of The Glasgow Curse, hear this: In 1991 a man called Arthur Thompson Jnr was murdered in Glasgow.  In 2005, the main suspect in the murder and the man charged with it, Paul Ferris, released a book called Vendetta in which he claimed that William Lobban committed the murder, and he also implicated Lobban in two other murders.  Now, The Glasgow Curse, among other things, presents an alternative view, and states that Paul Ferris committed the murder.

As readers, there is no way of our knowing who is correct and who is lying, but that is one more aspect of The Glasgow Curse you will enjoy.  To an extent, readers will play the detective, and will have to decide who is the real killer.  This process led me first to these two men's blogs and then into a documentary on Netflix, in which I could watch Paul Ferris being interviewed. I don't have any particular detective skills, but of course I had a hunch.  The film The Wee Man adds absolutely nothing to this, and if anything darkens the waters, presenting violent thugs as heroes, who not only act badly in Edinburgh accents, but perform a script that is, as we like to say round here — utter mince.

Looking into this matter led us on to message boards on Ferris' own website, where in 2002 he seems to have been planning his assault on Scottish letters, certain of the million dollar advances he would be getting for the thriller series he was planning.  He was in his own words going to out-sell and out-write both Ian Rankin and James Ellroy based on the fact that (as he claimed) he was such a crim that he didn't even need to do any research. 

Well if the battle really is now a literary one, we should be pleased that it's moved off the streets and into books.  Lobban's book is of course one of several arguing that it is telling the truth of certain situations, and it's good that he and his rivals aren't shooting each other, and letting the best seller lists decide who is Top Dog is one way of settling things.

Instead of street-fighting, William Lobban now puts up with hassle from his nemesis Paul Ferris online — and what is a more perfect arena for attrition these days than Twitter, where William Lobban and Paul Ferris can be found confronting each other of a weekend?

THE GLASGOW CURSE

Unlike the traditional true crime book, The Glasgow Curse is not trashy nor sensationalist.  On the contrary, The Glasgow Curse does many things that we expect of literature — rich characterisation, vivid cinematic scene-setting, and varied points of view to tell funny, emotional and sometimes shocking stories as fully as possible.  The Glasgow Curse does this, and at the same time comments on Scottish culture and prison culture from the 1970s to the late 1990s.  While setting the record straight on what turned out to be the biggest and most expensive trial in Scottish legal history, it does so with no grudge-bearing nor exaggerated language, which is quite a feat given what is at stake.

The Glasgow Curse is a magnificent read and it is for that reason that you will probably want to believe Lobban's side of the story.   In reading this book you get a sense of what alcohol and abuse can do to people, and how the cycle of violence handed on.  Much of the first half of the book describes a Glaswegian upbringing that will be familiar to many, although it must be said, not all of that many will have turned to crime. 

But crime is a cycle too, and that is the key message.  If you are raised by criminals and start to run with criminals, then the chances are good you'll be a criminal too.  Crime is presented as a matter of fact.  Instead of going to work, Lobban and his crew would rob BT compounds of easily available telephones and sell them. Instead of school, he had the Young Offenders Institution.  Even his grandparents were natural born boosters!

There are also many more highly unusual and even comic incidents than you might expect.  To escape the police in 1991 William Lobban cycled to London on a mountain bike. Then there are Raging Bull style traumas as William Lobban spent so much psychologically damaging time in solitary during years which he seemed to be going stir crazy around the clock.

Although only Lobban, Ferris and a few dead bodies may know the truth, The Glasgow Curse is credible, and is not as boastful and preposterous as its rival.  Early drafts of The Glasgow Curse were given the once over by Peter Urpeth whose own writing has drawn on Gaelic and Inuit mythology and spirituality.  Paul Ferris' book was written, or at least part-written by Reg McKay, a Daily Record reporter.  These two worlds are evident in these two tellings of the same story, although Lobban really did write his book, and has proved to be a real wordsmith.  The Glasgow Curse is thoughtful, never gets ahead of itself and speaks generally in a  calm voice, while the other is written in a short and punchy style that you might expect.

You may not agree with a criminal writing about his exploits and benefitting from this, and you are at liberty to do so.  Having said that, William Lobban is entirely frank, contrite and clearly regrets his life up until he was released from prison.  As a memoir The Glasgow Curse touches parts you would not expect it to.  There is no sense whatsoever in which The Glasgow Curse glamorises crime — in fact anyone that reads it will be sure to agree that crime is no life at all, and while stealing stuff may momentarily appear to be worth the effort, it is damaging to society, to its perpetrators and its victims.

In this case, the prison service's loss is literature's gain.