William Lobban was born in Exeter prison where his mother, Sylvia Manson, was serving time for her part in a daring heist, which, (like so many of the criminal adventures in young William’s life), went pear-shaped.
The opening sets the tone for Lobban’s life as heir to one of the more ‘successful’ crime families of the 60’s and 70’s. William’s uncle, hardman Robert Manson, (described by Lobban as a “real Glaswegian gangster of a long gone era”) was an underworld force until his murder in April 1983.
With the loss of his uncle, William’s life took a downward spiral. Robert Manson, (for all his hard man ways), defended the young William against the whims of a drunken, and volatile mother.
The rules of the game were straightforward in the William Lobban household. Ruthlessness, cruelty, a will to survive, (kill if necessary), and an odd form of entrepreneurship. Oddly, William’s world bears striking similarities to the corporate world; same rules apply; profit at all costs and sod the consequences.
William Lobban is a vivid raconteur. The botched episodes of William’s early criminal career are amusing, with the young William having the Monty Python knack of missing a pertinent detail, (such as how to shift stolen goods). The botched Balmore bar-heist is one such account of an inexperienced young crook getting it wrong.
It is easy to warm to the writer. Lobban comes across as likeable crook, irrespective of a ruthless criminal background. There is a certain prophetic tone, look what happens to kids who are abused and neglected. Lobban was both abused and neglected, but the narrative lacks self-pity.
The crime networks described in the book are historically apropos, for instance Lobban’s yuppie pad was a well-furnished apartment, complete with Axminster carpet, a status symbol in the 1980’s. Lobban, and his associates Ferris and Taylor were the criminal version of the yuppie movement down South.
At the same time Lobban chronicles the soreness of the times, grinding poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and scant opportunity for working class Glaswegian kids.
Meanwhile, down South, the Tories were pushing ahead with their economic and social reforms, caught up in the Gordon Gekko mantra, “greed is good”. Economic philosophers expounded the idea that human greed, (or envy) acts as a spur to growth.
In their quest to pull Britain out of the doldrums the conservatives turned a blind eye to the hostility of ordinary working class Britons. Not everyone was included in their ambitious manifesto and with the demise of the unions, people were angry, brittle, and afraid.
Home ownership relieved much of this fear, practically overnight, but for a certain period of time, (in the mid to late eighties), there was a war-like atmosphere between the government, (city of London) and UK workers, a predecessor to the anti-corporatist movements of today. (UK Uncut for instance).
William Lobban describes the conflict between the older crime bosses (overlords like Arthur Thompson) and the young criminal up-and-ups who were desperate for similar status. This is familiar territory to crime-book aficionados; turf wars, prison riots, internecine squabbles, conniving and betrayal, all freshly told.
The book starts off with bleak descriptions of a grim childhood. Poignantly, the young William never remembers having a meal cooked for him by his mother. Tossed about and abandoned, nevertheless the young William Lobban relished his freedom, he had the kingly ability to roam the streets at will.
The path chosen, (a predestined life of crime), demonstrates the moral failures of the era. Community leaders and politicians failed to make sure of an economic future for Glaswegian youth. Some might argue that William’s ingenuity and energy – albeit criminal – were a credit to his entrepreneurial young spirit.
Predictably, upon his release from prison, the writer had not help back into society. Given a £70 giro cheque and scant rehabilitation, William Lobban somehow made it beyond his life of crime and imprisonment towards becoming a professional writer.
The narrative, though seemingly matter-of-fact, crackles with life and zest, Lobban makes use of understated humour throughout. It is a well constructed first book and Lobban is planning a sequel.
One shining chapter (for me) was the prison siege. Following serious head injuries inflicted by another inmate, Lobban decides to take a guard hostage. The stand-off lasts for thirteen hours during which time Lobban and the guard achieve a delicate human bond. So much so that by the end of the ‘ordeal’ the captured guard shakes William’s hand calling him “a gentleman”.
This finely executed drama depicts the ironies and contradictions inherent in the prison system. Arguably, there is no such thing as criminals, there is society and its failings; that’s it.
A highly recommended read from William Lobban. I won’t be surprised to see this book turned into film.