Sara Trevelyan (2017) freedom found: a memoir.

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The spiel on the back page of the cover a kiss and tell from Jimmy Boyle: ‘She absolutely taught me how to love’.

Em, as my old da would say, fanny wash.

Sara in contrast has a whole book to tell the reader how it is or was.  ‘At the end of the 1970s, I met and fell in love with one of Scotland’s best-known prisoners, Jimmy Boyle. Our two very different worlds collided in an unexpected way…’

I love books, but gave Trevelyan’s away after reading the first few pages. Obviously, it boomeranged back. Trevelyan would find something significant about that. In her world view nothing happens by accident.  I stuck it in the toilet. I’ve read A Sense of Freedom (don’t remember much about it). And I was thinking about writing something with prisons in it.   What irked me most here was the writing. No cliché goes unused.

‘I spent my teenage years on the sunny beaches of Australia. In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined myself living in Scotland and becoming the wife of such a notorious prisoner.’

We know about Jimmy Boyle. Myth and legend, he nailed a guy to the floor over an unpaid debt. Boyle’s crucifixion in the penal system. His rehabilitation in Barlinnie’s Special Unit.

For a bad yin, Jimmy did good. Nice house in the South of France. Property portfolio. Hobnobbing with gentry. Ditched Sarah Travelyan for Kate, a wee blonde Glaswegian. Said he was feeling a bit lonely. Asked Sara’s permission to meet someone else. She tries to be non-judgemental.  If he wasn’t already fucking her then I’m a parrot.  Inevitable, I’d say, but I’m cynical that way.

Sarah Trevelyan (she dropped the h from her name) is one of those open-book types (if you’ll excuse the cliché). The joy of being relatively wealthy is you get a second chance and then a third and so on.  She trained as a physiotherapist. Didn’t make it. Trained as doctor in London. Came north, worked as a junior doctor in the psychiatric wards of a hospital in Edinburgh. Didn’t sit her exams. Left medicine to become a counsellor and psychotherapist.

Every experience needs to be channelled and learned from, if not in this life, in the one after. My reading of this and I’m sure she’d forgive me, because that’s where freedom is, she’s been taken for a ride. I’m OK. You’re OK.

Jimmy Boyle in the Special Unit is a different man from Jimmy on the outside. I’m sure they fell in love. I’m reminded of William Carlos Williams and Jack Gilbert’s different interpretations and  poems about Icarus flying, yeh, he did fly, before he fell, before he drowned. Sometimes we forget that.

Then cynical old me is reminded  of the number of women with access to prisoners, number of women that wears the crown of a real-life specimen of a medical doctor, number of women that say they are in love with the bantam cockerel of the Special Unit. Prison is a place where men don’t grow up until they leave. Jimmy in terms of outside years, remains an adolescent boy. Boy with hard on meets women that loves him. They lived happily ever after and have two kids, a boy and a girl.

After the divorce from Jimmy Boyle, Sara reverted to her birth name is one of the lucky few, let’s call them the upper to middle classes, her mother was a doctor, her father was, in effect, Britain’s film censor.

Prolepsis. Sarah before and after her broken heart went overboard with lots of stuff about bridges and crumbling bridges and pillars moving apart.

Sara flits from one course to another, taking stock and getting ready to face the world. Tibetan treks. Angel therapy. She gets a cottage near the Findhorn Foundation. I like her. It’s difficult not to. And I do wish her well. I send her my love out in waves of stamped- addressed envelopes (refundable). We need more people like her. And, let’s be honest, less people like Jimmy. I know he’s rehabilitated and all that, but he still sounds like a selfish cunt.  He sounds a bit like me.

Let’s finish with something uplifting. It’s not all bad. Black matter may be the most common substance in the universe, that has no substance, but it’s the light of dying stars that show where we are, who we truly are.  Sara in her quest of a new identity and real identity quotes Rama Krishna: ‘The winds of grace blow all the time. All we need to do is set our sails.’


Robert Jeffrey (2009) The Barlinnie Story.

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I don’t know why people keep giving me books about prisons, gulags and death camps (often the same place) and say things like ‘you’ll like this’. Perhaps it’s because, to nick a quote from the Paul Ferris trial, I’m not fully ‘compos mental’. I’ve had a few drinks sitting in the company of murderers and had pals like Terry Ross who I went to school with and were in and out of prison. A kind of detox from normal society in which he came out fitter and faster.  Total institutions do interest me because that’s where all the bad things happen, but it’s not necessarily regarded as a bad thing, an ethos of indifference that radiates outwards and also inwards. The Sunday Mail, for example, has a front-page headline ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, a lifer in Low Moss. The subtext is look how easy these murderers and scum get it in jail.  Low Moss isn’t Barlinnie. Bar-L or Barlinnie is the Big House. But the narrative was the same for Jimmy Boyle et al and the Special Unit. Prison as lifestyle choices. Them and Us. Fling away the key. And anything that happens inside is too good for them.

Robert Jefferey is a former journalist with a number of books skewed towards Glasgow and its people. The Barliinnie Timeline is impressive. From 1897 when a plot of land was bought for £9750 outside Glasgow and 1882 when A Hall was commissioned. Victorian planners were criticised for spending too much public money and thinking big, but never thought big enough. Cells designed for one prisoner routinely held two or more. Overcrowding from 1897 to the work ending on E Hall in 2007, and when the Timeline ends in 2007 has been, and continues to be, a nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century problem that doesn’t go away. And it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that sloping out was abolished when prisoner began to receive compensation for such practices – ‘lock away a couple of prisoners in a tiny cell for ten hours or so with no access to toilets, hand washing, clean towels or disinfectant and let them defecate and urinate in front of each other’ –  but note these prisoner’s cases went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. It’s doubtful with Brexit that this would be the case now and prisoners would still be sloping out and it would be regarded as too expensive to change things. And anyway throw away the key. They deserve it. Politicians looking to amend Britain’s commitment to the idea of universal human rights comes into the same category of it doesn’t affect us. Policy creep can work in different ways outside prisons as the Grenfell disaster shows.

Voices such as George Wilson a lay preacher that regularly visited the Barlinnie Special Unit are rarely heard and even less likely to be listened to, drowned out by tabloid bile.

What I discovered was that there were powerful people who wanted him [Jimmy Boyle] to fail in order to prove their own theories that the likes of Jimmy Boyle wouldn’t change.

In other words people like us deserve what we get, so people like them can say I told you so. Every programme about Welfare in the title sells the same message. Look at them smoking and drinking. They are other and we pay for them. Give them less. Jail the scum. Propaganda coming from the top from David Cameron and George Osborne which shaped public policy and witch hunts of the poor and working class and below them those that break the law. That shame is ours, not theirs.

The Barlinnie Story is our story but a mixed bag. Duplication not only the narratives of old lags, but of whole pages inserted randomly between pages 50 and 88 and then the same pages appearing out of sequence later is unprofessional and better books than this have been pulped for less. And on page 90, in the chapter entitled ‘Dog Boxes, Chamber Pots and Compensation’ leads with: ‘ ‘sensational’ the natural way to describe the various attacks on staff, rooftop riots and assorted exercise yard rumbles down the year,s ‘[sic] is a slightly turgid way of leading into the practice of sloping out. But really, ‘year,s’? This is a stupid mistake and makes me think Jeffrey has not read his own copy and then the question arises, why should we?