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Glove Story – Chris Eubank

May 9, 1993

The champ, the paragon, the shining example, the demi-god (only demi? Well, he doesn’t want to commit the sin of hubris) is on the phone to his barber. Glasgow speaks to Manchester. ”I’m not asking you Dougie, I’m telling you. I’m going to have to get someone else to cut it and they’ll mess up my hair and you don’t want that… We’re all under pressure, it’s a pressure you’ll have to deal with. Let somebody else down… Dougie, I’m not interested, mate, I need my hair cut, I’m on television tomorrow. You should comb it and cut it again, comb it and cut it again; we didn’t have time last time. I took a picture yesterday in a newspaper, I looked like an idiot… I need you here tonight, don’t let me down Dougie. You get up here to Scotland… It’s a different country, don’t let that frighten you. You get on a plane… Dougie, it’s not worth you telling me what the problem is. If I have an interview and my hair’s not right, I can’t think right, I can’t live right, I can’t talk right, I can’t fight right… I understand that you run a business, but you’ve given yourself a platform, and if I look bad you look bad. I’m you, my head is yours, one way or another you have to be here…”

There is more, much much more in this vein before the conversation reaches a satisfactory conclusion. For one of the parties, at least. What Chris Eubank wants, Chris Eubank gets.

There is, incidentally, absolutely nothing wrong with his hair. Unless you’re Eubank. ”It’s not perfection and perfection is what it has to be. I need it cut every seven to nine days.” Just as a matter of interest, what would he have done if Dougie hadn’t agreed? Silly question. Let’s put it another way: what if the plane is hijacked and Dougie is held hostage in some Middle Eastern guerrilla camp?

He shrugs. ”I either spend half an hour patting my hair down, or I’ll get someone who understands how to use a razor and make a line, or I’ll wear a hat.” So why not say that to Dougie? He smiles. ”It’s called a sales pitch.”

It’s a point worth bearing in mind when dealing with our current cartoon baddie, Eubank the arrogant, the super middle-weight champ who despises the boxing business, the philosopher of the ring who fancies himself as a Cambridge undergraduate, the chat show dandy who decks himself in Versace and maunders about his ‘inner warrior’ … It is all a very effective sales pitch. The question remains, is it anything more?

We’re to meet at Glasgow’s Moat House Hotel, an establishment which exists in the curious no-time of international flight departure lounges. Eubank has a suite on the 15th floor with more anterooms and apartments than the average palace. He receives me in the bedroom.

Even without the designer threads and ‘look at me’ shades, clad in an off-white jogging suit and fluffy towelling socks, he’s a good looking man. But what strikes you is the voice: soft, higher than you recall, with that much-mimicked lisp and the slight break which seems either pregnant with laughter or on the verge of tears.

His accent is flexible: RP for me, a streetwise sarf London for a couple of callers put through to the hotel room. Picking up the phone, he’ll aspirate ”How can I help you?” and you’d better swallow that snigger because he’s quite serious. To be fair, the ”cream and sugar?” manners seem natural enough, but there’s something a little too studied about the languid way he fingers his upper lip, those almost foppish gestures, so much daintiness in such a big package.

As you’d expect with a sometime Cosmo ‘Chauvinist of the Year’, we get the obligatory lady and the champ routine (”You can ask me anything you want, baby”), a long shtick about how he adores ”the female of the specie”, much stretching and rolling around on the Empire bed.

I quite fancy joining him. Just for a pillow fight, you understand. For all his 26 years, his l68lbs of solid muscle, the baby business, those interminable monologues about fighting for his manhood, Eubank comes across as a little boy, a larky kid playing up in his pyjamas. And then you remember that this little boy has already taken one life and irreparably damaged another.

When Eubank doesn’t want to answer a question he’ll mutter curtly ”Not important”. But not even he can dismiss Michael Watson this way. It was the second time they’d fought: Watson 2 – September 1991. In the 12th round Eubank knocked him out. A month later, when he emerged from the coma, Watson began the slow process of learning to walk and talk and feed himself again. It’s unlikely he’ll ever make it all the way back.

Eubank was badly shaken by the episode at the time and now refuses to talk about it, but it’s still there, cropping up in conversation when he’s off-guard or discussing other things. Then he’ll mention it, barely breathing the word ”two”. Never the man’s name, just this innocuous loaded abbreviation.

Watson wasn’t the first boxer in the world to get hurt; brain damage is not so much an occupational hazard as a guaranteed condition of employment. But his injury captured the imagination in a way others have not. Some of this was due to the pre-match press conference, a ritual public needling between the two fighters which went beyond showmanship into real nastiness. Eubank told Watson what he was going to do to him, and it didn’t make pleasant listening, and then, in a terrible irony of wish-fulfilment, it came to pass.

Five months later, on his way to the airport for a holiday in Jamaica, Eubank’s Range-Rover ran off the road and killed a workman. Neither episode did much for his popularity, but then there wasn’t too much of that to start with.

Surprising how many people don’t like Eubank. When he approaches the ring doing the famous strut, his iceman pastiche of untouchable contempt, you can hear the crowd booing him; some of them even look as if they’re trying to get within striking range. It’s rumoured that the snooker player Steve Davis has warned their manager Barry Hearn to stay clear of the boxer in public because one day someone is going to have a serious go at him and it’s not worth getting in the way.

Even Eubank seems chastened by the intensity of the reactions he provokes. Belatedly he’s embarked on a campaign to reinvent himself as Mr Nice, opening his training sessions to the public and donating the gate to charity, popping up in Moss Side like a missionary with attitude to preach to the dispossessed youth about doing good and living clean. His image is pure press misrepresentation, he protests: ask anyone, everyone, who’s spoken to him. ”I’m a likeable guy, a likeable person.”

And funnily enough, he is.

Without the gloves, when he’s not doing his hammy Cagney act on the way to the ring or striking those weird robotic poses, Eubank is quite an appealing character. The thing about all that demi-god guff is that you are allowed to laugh, at least if you’re the ”female of the specie”. He remains, nevertheless, deeply self-obsessed, almost mystically in awe of himself. And once he really gets going, it’s no laughing matter.

”I don’t generate real hate in people, Hyde does. He’s the boxing character, he’s the true warrior, he’s bloody and courageous and assertive, arrogant if you want to call it arrogant, he’s cocky, he’s cool, he’s a bad mother, he’s a character of pure fortitude, he plays people’s emotions, the people who are attracted to the sport. It’s not me. I swear on my eyes it’s not me.”

A word of warning while there’s still time. It’s easy to lose your way in conversation with Eubank, what with the tortuous syntax, the calf-bound vocabulary, all that rhetorical repetition; his lists are as likely to bludgeon you senseless as his fists. In the end, his tendency to talk everything up as enlightenment leaves you wondering whether anything he says means anything at all.

His philosophy is certainly of more interest to the psychologist than the metaphysician. Its governing principle is not consistency but autobiography. To understand, you have to go back to that little boy.

He was the youngest of four brothers brought up by their father in a council flat in Stoke Newington, North London. He calls it a ghetto, which it wasn’t, but they were at the meagre end of poverty: all four brothers sleeping sideways across the same single bed, little else by way of furniture, the television set permanently broken. Brilliant times, he says.

His first memory is of hostility. Many subsequent memories, too. It came in handy, he says. ”In accordance to what’s happened in my life it’s something I’ve come to understand, and because I understand it I can use it to free myself from the bondage of society.”

Was he loved as a boy? ”Not important.” He was a loving child, with love for others inside him; he didn’t need any from outside. Just as well. There wasn’t much in the way of reinforcement from his siblings. ”One said I was silly, one said I was a fool, one said I was ugly.” But he’s glad they put him down. ”It’s what gave me strength to do what I did.” And what Christopher did was fight.

He fought everybody: kids who chewed gum too loud in his ear, kids who had the wrong attitude towards him, kids who bullied other kids. He fought them because they were wrong and he was right, right and uncompromising. ”I was a good child.”

So good he was suspended and expelled 18 times from a succession of schools. He was taken into local authority care and sent to ”boarding schools whose fees were paid by the government”, only to run away again. At 16, in one last bid to straighten the boy out, he was sent to America to live with the mother he barely knew.

And it worked. It must be the first time the South Bronx set anyone on the straight and narrow. He knuckled under and went back to school, graduating at the age of 19. What made the difference? Boxing.

Eubank has a complicated relationship to his sport. He isn’t the first fighter to project a bad boy persona in order to sell tickets. Nigel ‘the Dark Destroyer’ Benn was doing it long ago. But there is one trick which is all Eubank’s own: he badmouths boxing.

He makes distinctions between the craft, which he loves, and the business, which he hates, but it’s an oddly self-sabotaging rebellion all the same: this is what I do better than anyone, and it stinks.

He fights for the money, he insists. Which is freedom. He’s a victim of society, a child of penury who wants all the possessions he never had. What else would pay him the sort of cash he makes for training three or four hours a day and fighting five fights a year? If everything goes according to plan he’ll give it up in 12 months, he says, but then, he’s been saying that for years.

There is, of course, another reason for boxing.

”Putting your life on the line is real, putting your self-esteem on the line is real, putting your pride on the line is real, putting your standard of living on the line is real, putting your faith, your manhood on the line…” (yes, yes, get on with it) ”baby, that’s real. Every time you get in there you’re on the razor’s edge. I know the way it feels, it’s not a nice feeling, it’s a horrible feeling. I don’t like doing it, but I like doing it. It’s a challenge. We’re here, we’re taking on this challenge, we’re living it big, we’re living it strong.”

There is a theory that suicidal behaviour sorts into two categories: the appeal and the ordeal function. Those in the first camp want to affect the living; in the second, they’re testing fate.

I wouldn’t say this to everyone, but it happens to be right up Eubank’s mystical street, so I ask him: does he fight to prove the gods love him?

His first reaction is to bluster. ”I’m the one who’s living this, I’m living something that’s extraordinary; you’re a mere mortal. My answer would be something that… You’re not entitled to this information, baby.” He laughs. ”It’s a bloody good question as well, I take my hat off to you, but you don’t deserve the answer.”

After that, I’m not sure I need one. The point is, when a man goes to these sort of lengths to prove he’s OK, it can only be because deep down he fears that he isn’t. Perfectionism is a paradoxical virtue, the mark of those who believe they start the race so far behind that only the ultimate achievement will render them acceptable.

He displays the textbook behaviour of a personality trying to keep daemons at bay. Certain words recur in his conversation. Good. Clean. Unpolluted. Real. Sincere. His asceticism starts as athletic discipline – no alcohol, no substances – but strays into the wacko realm of renouncing aftershave and scented deodorants. There’s a strong whiff of the talisman about all this, the sort of magical thinking favoured by children and primitive societies.

Take the furniture in his hotel room, his habit of arranging everything so that it’s impossible to tell he’s been there before he leaves for a fight. Is that not a little… superstitious?

”I know where everything is. Everything is sectioned, everything is where it’s supposed to be, everything is clean, everything is in its rightful place. That’s nothing to do with superstition. When I’m in the arena, in the changing rooms, I think ‘where’s my wedding ring?’ I know it will be on top of this table here, and my watch is in this drawer.” He proceeds to run a complete inventory of the possessions in his suite.

”It’s just knowing where everything is: that’s called organisation, not superstition. It’s not extreme, it’s mathematics, it’s keeping everything in order, so you know. It’s not good not to know.”

Evidently not.

“Why is Chris Eubank so strange?” he asks suddenly, taking the sugar bowl from the tea tray and placing it on the carpet. ”I tell you why. There’s the objective, OK? The insincere world” …he starts to prowl around the room, circling the demerara… ”they will coy a little, creep a little and lie a little, maybe wait a little” …he’s almost dancing, pirouetting slo-mo behind the sofa, gooseflesh reminding me this is not a man you want in your blind spot… ”they’ll smile a little, beat around the bush a little to get to the objective. The reason Chris Eubank is strange, maybe even unacceptable to some people, is he does it like this.” And he walks straight to the bowl and picks it up.

Despite all the boasting, despite that dressing gown embroidered ‘Simply The Best’ after the Tina Turner track he’s taken as his signature tune, Eubank knows there are better boxers. ”The fact is that we both have two hands, two legs, a brain, a mind, we both have determination, we both have these concepts, we both have a will, we both have pride, we both have talents. If everything’s equal, it’s the one who lives the cleanest.”

We’re not just talking deodorant here. ”It’s the way you walk, it’s the way you talk, it’s the way you act to people, it’s the message what you have for people, it’s whether you’ll cop out and live in the insincere world, whether you’ll play the game.” He even despises actors for pretending on stage. ”They give people so much pleasure but they’ve achieved nothing. Boy, that must be a bad feeling.”

It’s not always an easy way to live. ”My principles have come this close” …he presses thumb and forefinger almost together… ”this close to letting me down.” Knowing what he means, I ask anyway. His voice drops to a whisper. ”Two.”

As a coping strategy Eubank’s philosophy works fine, as long as he keeps on winning. But what happens when he loses, as he acknowledges is inevitable at some point? If he’s a winner because he’s clean, protected by goodness, doesn’t losing imply unworthiness, a terrifying fall from grace? The edges are fraying already: he’s had his share of tragedy. And anyone who goes in for magical thinking must also accept the possibility of jinx.

He shakes his head. ”No. I’m a lucky man.” And the workman on the way to the airport? He’s suddenly very cold. ”Bad question, Don’t ask me questions like that. Accidents happen. Do you know how many crashes there are in a year? Do you know the statistics? I happened to be one of those people who survived.”

But later there’s an incident which suggests matters are rather more complicated, a hint that Eubank is marked by death, and prepared for it to appear at any moment.

That evening he holds one of his charity training sessions, open to anyone who wants to watch the working of those tectonic plates of muscle. He tapes up the fingers that have been gesticulating so fastidiously and does some pad work with his trainer Ronnie, each punch propelled by an unnerving guttural shout.

Accidentally, he clips the trainer’s hand and, pop, Ronnie’s knuckle is out, a strange cartoon-like tuber on the inside of his third finger. Wincingly, the older man supervises the rest of the session, the speedball, the punch bag, a few rounds of sparring between Eubank and a young boxer called Paul, then jogs off in search of a doctor.

Half an hour later Eubank is on his feet, chatting to the sparse crowd, when some unnameable expression flits across his face. The next moment he’s smiling to himself, explaining in that breaking voice: ”I had a funny thought back then. Paul’s come back in. I thought he was going to tell me that Ronnie’s passed away.”

Eubank will be training at the SECC every evening until Saturday’s contest with Ray Close. You can go along and see him there: a lone figure in the ring, half absorbed, half self-conscious, skipping, dancing, twitching, bouncing against the ropes, dodging and retreating, grunting and trembling as those powerhouse arms execute flurrying jabs and sudden uppercuts, strange unconnecting blows. Fighting his shadow.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

No smoke without ire

July 20, 2002

So here we are in Homegrown Fantasy, a coffee shop in the middle of Amsterdam run by a tall man with a pubic goatee on his chin and cannabis leaves tattooed over his luminously pale body. The blackboard offers cheese toasties and organic apple juice, but it’s the other menu we’re interested in, the one listing space cakes, chocolate space bonbons, ready-made joints and a range of skunk in five- and ten-Euro sachets.

Kevin Williamson turns a jaundiced eye on the decorated tabletops with their intergalactic vistas and all-seeing eyes. “There’ll be no cosmic swirls or 60s bollocks in my coffee shop.”

Williamson plans to open Scotland’s first cannabis café: a members-only establishment for over-18s, with chessboards, gallery space, a cinema showing non-Hollywood films, and a radical bookshop. The sort of “hang out, chill out, do-what-you-want” place that will become a fixture on the Edinburgh social scene. He’ll run the occasional literary event, and he’ll serve very good coffee.

Preparations are well advanced. He has found premises in the city centre and taken an option on the lease (the location is a secret until he’s sounded out his prospective neighbours). He has backers to help with the £40,000 start-up cost (and no, he’s not identifying them either). He has a number of suppliers lined up and has chosen the seeds he wants them to grow. Some 240 people have applied for up to eight part-time and full-time jobs. The Rebel Inc coffee shop will definitely open before the end of the year. He just has one or two details to sort out first. Whether he’s going to sell cannabis or open the café as a cannabis-friendly space where punters bring their own. Whether the police are likely to arrest him. What his chances are of going to jail. Little things like that.

And the booth. Even if he does not end up selling cannabis, he will have a booth, as a reminder of what should be. The booth is crucial to the ritualistic pleasure of cannabis-buying, with its perspex jars of bud and hash, its under-the-counter worktop equipped with scales and cutting board and those dinky self-seal plastic sachets. The booth is where the dealer (invariably, in my limited experience, a man) conducts his mysteries. Some booths also display smoker’s accessories: pipes, bongs, pouches, penknives, cigarette papers, rolling mats and other fetishistic paraphernalia.

Just as you get wine bores, so there are cannabis bores. Monomaniacs. Fanatics. Kevin Williamson doesn’t fit the mould. Yes, he’s drugs spokesman for the Scottish Socialist Party, the man who founded Scotland Against Drugs Hypocrisy and wrote Drugs and the Party Line, but he’s not an obsessive: he just sees the possibilities in the politics of pleasure. Give him the choice between a good smoke and a good book and he’d take the book every time. He’s the man everyone thinks published Trainspotting. He didn’t; but he did launch Laura Hird and Toni Davidson, start the Rebel Inc imprint and edit the cult anthology Children of Albion Rovers. He’s a countercultural entrepreneur. His website attracted 100,000 hits in its first two months. If anyone can make a go of a cannabis café, he can.

This visit to Amsterdam is the latest of many fact-finding trips for him; for me it’s a 24-hour immersion in cannabis culture. We visit holes-in-the-wall and spacious premises with floor-to-ceiling windows; a self-consciously exotic smoking den filled with brass elephants and Indian deities; a stylish example of contemporary art nouveau; a tatty former nightclub filled with pool tables; a no-frills working man’s caff. The music ranges from the trancy and trippy to head-scrambling jazz, pounding reggae and guitar-solo 1970s rock. Clearly coffee shops are a branch of the leisure industry well aware of the advantages of niche-marketing. The menus offer “bio” or “hydro” (soil-grown or hydroponically grown – connoisseurs say soil is better), and give their products names like El Nino and The Big Bang. There’s even a bubble gum-flavoured smoke. Nice and light, apparently. “Some smokes are very mongy,” Kevin says, making the face of a man who’s eaten three helpings of steamed pudding.

It may be time for a confession: I’m not a wide-eyed ingénue when it comes to cannabis, nor one of those news-room hashheids who feign astonished outrage in print; I just haven’t smoked since school. Kindly, Kevin fills me in on current argot. Stoners (serious smokers), soap bar (the low quality cannabis available in Scotland), skinning up (rolling a joint), having a whitey (feeling dizzy and nauseous). Then there are the many words for the drug itself. Bud (grass). Hash (the resinous form). Smoke. Puff. Jack Straw. There’s a two second time-lag before I realise he’s joking.

He would like the Rebel Inc coffee shop to sell between eight and ten types of bud with a range of different effects, so that people could choose between getting high and getting stoned. He won’t sell hash, which would have to be imported, with no guarantee that the workers involved in its production had not been exploited, and he won’t deal with the criminal black market. If someone wanted to smoke the strong, trippy White Widow strain in the middle of the afternoon he’d ask them why, and what they were planning on doing later, recommending that they try the lighter Buddha instead. All he’s proposing is a refinement of the current situation. Scots already smoke cannabis. He just wants them to be able to do so in a nice funky café with an element of harm reduction and increased consumer choice, instead of the pot-luck system offered by the black market.

So what sort of clientele does he expect? He shrugs. Regular smokers, tourists, locals, the curious. People in search of a civilised night out who don’t want to hang out with drunks. “In Scotland our entire social life is organised around alcohol. It saturates our society. It’s really enjoyable, but it’s a drug that’s so easy to abuse and causes so many problems. Edinburgh has become Stag and Hen Night Central. Take a walk down Lothian Road or the Grassmarket on a Friday or Saturday: it’s a nightmare. You want somewhere where there’s not going to be a bunch of pissheads staggering about.”

Somewhere like the cannabis-selling coffee shop we’re in now: “When you look around in a place like this you think ‘what’s the problem?’ People sitting around, having a chat, having a smoke, enjoying the weather – where’s the threat to public order?”

Where indeed? We’re surrounded by Gap customers. T-shirts, chinos, well-laundered denims, wire-rimmed spectacles: the homogeneously youthful style worn by just about everyone not yet eligible for a bus pass.

All journalism is censored. Not necessarily by the editor. As often as not by the reporter, neglecting to mention a fact because it would cause needless difficulty or embarrassment. Writing about cannabis, journalistic tact rapidly reaches the point of absurdity. The fact is that cannabis is smoked in Scotland’s schemes and middle class suburbs, not just by superannuated hippies and unemployed youth, but by accountants, dentists, computer programmers, catering managers, window cleaners, bus drivers, hairdressers … In most circumstances they’re quite open about this, but they don’t wish to be identified in print.

It seems a harmless hypocrisy – unless you happen to be one of the 90,000 people arrested every year for cannabis possession in the UK. Then the double standard starts to matter.

Politicians and the police are old hands at this doublethink. So Tony Blair can say he is sympathetic to users of “medical marijuana”, assuring multiple sclerosis sufferers, cancer patients, and people with serious spinal injuries that the government is conducting trials into the effectiveness of cannabis as a source of pain relief. And yet Biz Ivol, an MS sufferer on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay, is awaiting trial for allegedly making cannabis-laced chocolates. The Scottish police are reported to have decriminalised cannabis possession through a policy of ignoring small amounts held for personal use. But possession is still against the law.

Earlier this month David Blunkett announced a shake-up of the drug laws to take effect from next July. Cannabis was reclassified from a class B to a class C drug; the power of arrest for possession was replaced by confiscation and a caution. So far so good for people like Kevin Williamson. Less encouraging was an increase in the maximum sentence for supplying from five to 14 years. The law remains riddled with anomalies. There is a two-year penalty for “aggravated possession”. In Scotland, where police do not have the power to caution, possession of cannabis will continue to be reported to the fiscal. The Home Secretary seems to be saying that smoking the odd joint is not the worst thing in the world – but if a cannabis smoker happens to meet the odd policeman who thinks it is, they could be in trouble.

Fifteen years ago, legalisation of cannabis was a fringe issue, the pet subject of a few 1960s survivors. The weed was widely smoked, but no-one bothered to campaign. Then came the dance revolution of the late 1980s, and a massive cultural shift in attitudes towards drugs, bringing an upsurge in cannabis-smoking among the young. A generation left cold by the mainstream political parties woke up to the injustice of a system which forbade them their relatively harmless drugs of choice while accepting the sale of the far more pernicious drugs, alcohol and tobacco. A majority of the population under the age of 50 now want to see cannabis decriminalised.

Several European countries are moving in this direction. In Spain and Belgium citizens are allowed to grow plants for personal use. In Germany possession is tolerated, and a number of shops sell cannabis under the counter. In Switzerland they’ll sell you hemp, as long as you pretend you want it for potpourri. In Holland cannabis smoking has been tolerated since 1976. Coffee shop proprietors are permitted to keep 500 grammes of cannabis on the premises at any one time; under-18s are not allowed in. Though Amsterdam has coffee shops which double as bars (catering to a mix of locals and the tourist trade), elsewhere alcohol and cannabis are not sold in tandem. Far from seeing an explosion in cannabis use, the tolerance policy seems to have made little difference. The 1980s saw an increase, but only in line with the trend across Europe. In recent years the number of cannabis-selling coffee shops has fallen from 1,400 to 900. An estimated 15 per cent of the population indulge. The Christian Democrats in Holland’s coalition government are not happy, but no-one seriously expects the tolerance policy to be reversed. Holland’s drug policies work.

Haarlem is a city of 160,000 souls just outside Amsterdam, in the heart of the tulip bulb area. Once it was the centre of the chocolate industry, now it’s one of those eclectic economies: shops, the Dutch business school, the mint. Nol Van Schaik is a native. “Born, raised and detained here,” he says laughing, but it’s not a joke. He served four years for an attempted bank robbery. These days he’s a drug dealer, owner of three of Haarlem’s 16 coffee shops, and it’s all perfectly legit.

He cuts a striking figure, with his semmit exposing those bodybuilder’s shoulders and that golden tan outshone by the necklace which – yes, really – is a linkage of miniature gold joints. He used to be national coach to the Dutch bodybuilding federation, but his gym went bankrupt and he needed money in a hurry, and … well, he learned a lot in prison. He became chairman of the inmates’ federation, got himself a business diploma, brushed up his English and Spanish. Never touched cannabis until he was 30. He went over to Germany with an American football team and got so stoned passive-smoking in the close confines of the bus that he thought he might as well try a joint on the return trip. It was a decision which changed his life. He opened his first coffee shop 11 years ago.

Kevin couldn’t have chosen a better mentor. Nol’s built up a thriving business. Along with his three coffee shops and his cannabis taxi delivery service, he is planning to launch a cannabis boat for pleasure trips along Haarlem’s canals, and he’s thinking of selling to the UK online. He takes all major credit cards. If there’s a queue at the booth you can drop some coins into a vending machine and get a joint. (“How cool is that?” Kevin murmurs admiringly.) He also runs the city’s cannabis museum, a loss-making venture which he subsidises for educational reasons. They see a lot of schoolteachers and foreign police.

He has customers from all walks of life. Workers, guys in neckties. They even get big cars stopping outside and the chauffeur nipping in for two bags – one for himself and one for his employer. The busiest time is between five and six when people get out of work. The local cops are meant to be discreet and take off their uniforms before they pop in for a smoke, but they rarely bother.

His relationship with the police is extremely cordial. There’s supposed to be an annual meeting to discuss any problems, but they haven’t bothered for the past couple of years. There hasn’t been a complaint involving a coffee shop in three years: what’s there to meet about? “I said ‘I’ve a complaint, I don’t like the 500 gramme rule. You find me possessing 700 grammes, do you confiscate the lot or just 200?’ They said ‘we never weigh your stuff so it won’t happen’.”

It makes him a good living, but cannabis is more than just a money-spinner. “It’s not a calling, but it’s close,” he says. He runs a training course for aspiring coffee shop proprietors; he is one of the backers of the Dutch Experience, the cannabis café opened in Stockport last year; he donated the furniture to England’s other cannabis café, in Bournemouth. Nol believes in this drug.

He’ll tell you how he provides medical marijuana at a 50% discount to people who need it for pain relief; how eating cannabis chocolate helps multiple sclerosis sufferers stay spasm-free all night; how 90 per cent of the trouble in Amsterdam originates in bars selling alcohol, eight per cent in establishments selling both cannabis and booze, and only two per cent in cannabis coffee shops. He’s been in pubs in Stockport on Friday night: he’s seen the fights break out. In his coffee shops, if people raise their voices it’s because someone’s scored at table football.

About 75 per cent of his turnover is grown in Haarlem: “The little grower in his shed took care of organised crime.” If the government ever abandoned the tolerance policy he’d have to sack his two dealers. They’d start claiming benefits and working the black market. The medical marijuana users would lose their 50 per cent discount. The government would have to do without the tax he pays. Everybody would lose. “In Holland you’ve got a right to a rush. We’re down to earth. If it doesn’t bother the community: fine, then everybody’s happy with it.”

Kevin Williamson is hoping the British government will eventually come round to this way of thinking.

The UK cannabis market is currently worth £3.5 billion. If prices stayed as they are on the black market, a 50 per cent tax would put £1.75 billion into the Exchequer. In the meantime, he is counting on the Scottish Executive and Lothian Police letting him run the Rebel Inc coffee shop as an experiment. They may wish to test his claim that prohibition merely exacerbates the problems caused by drugs while enriching the criminals. They may see the sense in breaking the link between soft and hard drugs, so that the cannabis smoker – buying in a café – never comes into contact with the dealers selling heroin and cocaine. They may think that the harm-reduction approach is the way forward.

And if they don’t?

“I don’t want to be a martyr, I’ve no intention of being involved in some kamikaze stunt, I don’t think it’s the way to do it – but if you end up in prison, you end up in prison. It doesn’t scare me, put it that way.”

Most politicians make the mistake of dabbling with this and that issue, achieving nothing. He intends to concentrate his efforts on cannabis, confident that the power of logic will win the day when the time is right. There’s a huge cross-section of society with him on this one. “I intend to see it all the way through, no matter how long it takes.”

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

The spying dame – Stella Rimington

November 28, 2003

Stella Rimington

Long ago, in another country, I lived along the road from a notorious mole. At least, the industrial secret she leaked was notorious; the mole kept her cover despite strenuous efforts to unearth her. We regularly passed on the street and once ate at the same table but, betweentimes, I could never remember what she looked like. She was the perfect spy. I hadn’t thought of her for 20 years, until the day I met Dame Stella Rimington.

For operational reasons I interview the former director general of MI5 before reading her comprehensively unrevealing autobiography. But I have read the flurry of disappointed press coverage that accompanied its publication, and am expecting a nervous woman, mousy and unimpressive. Nothing could be further from the truth, that much is obvious. But beyond that … think of the myriad verbal and visual clues we all put out, allowing others to read us: Stella Rimington has jammed most of those signals.

She’s 68 but seems much younger, dressed in a jacket that looks like suede but turns out to be corduroy, black trousers, fashionably pointy boots. Her hair is short and chic and dyed pale blonde. She has a way of occupying her skin. Comfortable in it, to borrow the French phrase; calm and focused; and something else … Impregnable: that’s the word. She seems impregnable in her own skin.

In 1992, when she became the first director general to have her identity made public, the tabloids dubbed her the Housewife Superspy. It was the best they could do under the circumstances, though clearly they would have preferred someone more exotic, a Mata Hari or a Rosa Klebb.

“There’s a rather artificial romanticism attached to the intelligence services,” she says wearily. We’re a nation of spy story readers: we want to believe in James Bond and George Smiley.

“People who work in the intelligence services are ever such normal people. They’re not these twisted John le Carré characters really. They live normal lives, they have normal families.” But for 80 years the head of MI5 had been a figure shrouded in secrecy. “When you realise what they are is a fairly down-to-earth person trying to balance complex issues, there may indeed be a sense of disappointment.”

So speaks Rimington the manager, the professional who steered an old-fashioned organisation through a period of necessary change. The new world order required a new kind of security service and a new personality-type to staff it. No longer the ex-military or colonial chaps on their second career, but fresh thinkers straight out of university. “Fighting espionage in the Cold War was a completely different thing from fighting terrorism. Fighting espionage was much more slow: don’t move until you’re certain. It generated very closed organisations. You didn’t need self-confident people who could present themselves to the outside world. Then came terrorism, which grew to be far and away the most important threat to the country. You need a different kind of people for that, people who are prepared to balance risks and gains, and take risks, and move quickly.”

Sitting opposite her, watching her almost anonymous face, listening to her virtually featureless idiolect, it’s tempting to take her on her own terms: as an executive who confronted much the same challenges as the leader of any other large organisation. But then you remember this is a woman whose stock-in-trade included dead letter boxes in hollowed-out trees, chalk marks on lampposts, documents left behind loose bricks in walls … After her name was released to the press, a newspaper published a photograph of her house. She and her younger daughter spent the next few years living underground, using false names. Not part of the job description of your average executive.

Was there ever a threat to her life? Her expression loses its composure and for a moment I glimpse another Stella Rimington. She tries to fob me off with the assertion that anyone associated with the British state was at risk from the IRA. But was there ever a specific threat to her personally? “I don’t hugely like to talk about those sorts of security angles, but yes, I was regarded by somebody who would have been an interested party as a target for those who wished us ill.”

So here we are, Dame Stella and I, in the oddly intimate setting of a half-lit hotel room and, frankly, it all feels a little unreal. As we’re so cosy, I confess my difficulty: had I met her in the 1980s, when she was assistant director of counter-subversion, investigating figures in the anti-nuclear, trade union and Labour movements, I would have regarded her as … “Your social enemy?” she suggests.

Twenty years ago many on the Channel 4-watching, Guardian-reading Left believed MI5 was a much greater threat to democracy than a few street-corner Trots in leather jackets. There was a widespread view that, far from protecting national security, Rimington’s department was infringing civil liberties to further the political agenda of Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Party. As late as 1994, after publication of Seumas Milne’s The Enemy Within, 50 MPs signed a House of Commons motion stating that, if the book’s allegations were well-founded, “Stella Rimington is not a fit person to run the security service and should be dismissed”.

She has repeated her denials in interview after interview: MI5 has never been subject to political direction and did not run agents or pay informers in the NUM during the Miners’ Strike (though she can’t answer for the police or Special Branch). It was, however, legitimate to investigate those who had declared that they were using the strike to try to bring down the elected government. Likewise, MI5 limited its investigation of the peace movement to Soviet-encouraged attempts to infiltrate CND at key strategic levels.

There seems little point in wasting precious minutes of a half-hour interview listening to her make this speech again. It may be truthful, as far as it goes, but were it not, she’d say exactly the same thing.

Stella Rimington’s father was a draughtsman, her mother a midwife. Her first job was as an assistant archivist at the Worcestershire County Record Office. It’s not the most obvious launching pad for the top job in the secret state. What did she have that took her so far?

“Common sense I would say is the biggest thing. A kind of directness, which I think is often a female quality, a tendency to say things as I think they are instead of beating about the bush.”

In 1989 the Security Service Act was passed, giving MI5’s powers a statutory basis and introducing a degree of ministerial and judicial scrutiny. It was part of a wider move towards openness that required careful handling. “It’s about balancing pressures, balancing risks and rewards, which I enjoy and I think I’m quite good at. I think it’s those sort of things which fitted the moment as the world started to change: I think I was in the right place at the right time.”

Hmm. She can’t have been the only MI5 employee possessed of common sense. She certainly wasn’t the only woman. And the chances are she wasn’t the only staffer who saw the way the wind was blowing, globally and domestically, and realised it was time for a culture-shift. But to be so steeped in, and successfully associated with, a workplace culture that you rise almost to the top and then to embrace its antithesis: that may be more unusual. She seems to have had a knack of “fitting the moment” again and again.

Every life is a bundle of inconsistencies but Rimington’s seems more contradictory than most. Time after time she found herself in situations where she was an outsider, yet she was able to pass. As a Protestant convent schoolgirl. As a parvenu diplomatic Memsahib in Delhi. As a fun-seeking dilettante joining the tweedy monocled afternoon-drinkers who staffed MI5 in the late-1960s; a state-educated feminist promoted despite a sexually discriminatory career structure dominated by former public schoolboys. As an Islington single parent whose neighbours never guessed her professional identity. And now, as an ex-spymistress-turned-public speaker. It comes as no great surprise to learn that in the 1960s, when she accompanied her husband to a diplomatic posting in India, one of her hobbies was acting. Some years later MI5 sent her on an agent-running course designed to teach the skill of merging into the background. I doubt that she had much to learn.

As for who she really is, behind all the roleplaying: your guess is as good as mine. Her autobiography, Open Secret, ought to provide an answer but she remains as opaque on the final page as on the first. The dedicated reader will find references to the nights she spent hand-washing her daughter’s nappies, the stress of running the Delhi Diplomatic Wives’ jumble sale, even the breakdown of her marriage. But the personal revelations feel like so many decoys, there to draw attention away from exactly which peace protesters she kept under surveillance, which IRA operations she did – or did not – foil, which Soviet agents she caught and turned: all questions left firmly unanswered.

It is possible Rimington herself did not truly understand who – or what – she was until after her retirement in 1996. For most of her career she had lived undercover. Only her best friends knew how she earned her living. She told acquaintances she bought boots for the army. Once she found herself at a dinner party with a judge in whose court she’d given evidence, disguised in a wig and ageing make-up. He didn’t recognise her. Even once her name was released to the press and the veil of secrecy began to lift, there was a hundred times more that had to remain hidden. Living like that takes its toll, she says.

“Having worked so long in that world I think it makes you more inward, not isolated quite, but certainly relying on yourself more. It’s very difficult to know how you would have turned out if you hadn’t been in that world. When you’re at the top of any organisation it’s quite a lonely job; if you’ve learned to be quite self-contained that can be a help.” On the other hand, she adds with one of her sudden, disarming, gummy smiles: “I’m sure the psychologists would say it’s not the ideal personality.”

Leaving such a sealed environment was a big step. “It’s hard to make that transition. Working in the intelligence services sort of takes over your life, because of the requirements of security and not talking about what you do. Because you can’t have a normal direct relationship with the outside world, they become your sort of family. I should think it took me a year to try to extract my life and to feel that I was an individual again.”

Even after that first year, there were shocks in store. She decided to write an autobiography and, anxious to abide by the rules, she informed the authorities. The surprising thing about the reaction to this news – the dressing-down from Cabinet secretary Sir Richard Wilson, the whispering campaign in the press, the unknown civil servant who put a copy of the book in a taxi and sent it round to the Sun – is not that it happened, but that Rimington was astounded by it. “Having what was, in fact, a black propaganda campaign conducted against you is quite upsetting,” she says. “When every time you open a newspaper you’re accused of doing X, Y and Z.”

At the time she spoke of feeling persecuted and, in what seems to have been something of a blinding revelation, drew parallels between her own bewildered emotions and the experiences of people targeted by MI5. Now she insists it’s all water under the bridge. It was stirred-up by a certain part of Whitehall. The Ministry of Defence, wasn’t it? She takes a deep breath: “It was the Ministry of Defence.” At the time they were prosecuting a former SAS man for revealing potentially damaging details of operations and methods. Although there were no such details in her book, and she handed the manuscript over for vetting, she was tarred with the same brush. It’s recognised now that the fuss was overdone. “It hasn’t in any longstanding sense affected my relations with my former colleagues.”

Though she doesn’t say so, I get the impression that she doesn’t much care either way. That ever-flexible personality has adapted itself to a new set of circumstances. She’s a writer now. Her debut novel, a thriller about an intelligence officer and a terrorist operation, is due out in July: the first of a series with the same heroine. Along with the writing, she speaks at dinners and annual conferences, and sits on various boards: a school, a cancer charity, a couple of big companies. “I do lots and lots of different things, I find myself in lots of different situations, meeting lots of different people, and I love it.”

What do these people want from her, I wonder: are they fascinated by her former power, seeking the lingering thrill of that shadowy world?

“I’m on the board of Marks & Spencer now,” she says.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

A cause for all seasons – Peter Tatchell

March 22, 2003

Everyone knows what happens to left-wing consciences. They’re all around us: those solid citizens who wore the badges and shouted the slogans in their youth, then gave up in the name of growing-up. But there was always the odd one who stuck with the struggle, picketing and boycotting and agitating about oppression in faraway lands. It was, well, sweet really, if a bit of a joke…

Peter Tatchell is 51. He works 60 to 70 hours a week as an unpaid human rights campaigner, and another 20 to 30 hours to earn his £7,000 annual income. He has been arrested, vilified, run over and beaten up, and has night terrors where he relives the most violent attacks. It’s hard to make a definitive audit of his achievements. His website contains some impressive claims, but in person he’s diffident, scrupulously crediting the part played by others. He’s certainly done his bit – often a big bit – towards every gay rights victory of the past two decades: convincing the European Community to act against discrimination, equalising the age of consent in Britain, overturning the ban on gays in the military, pressurising the Anglican Church into a more gay-friendly attitude, persuading the Metropolitan Police to record homophobic attacks and to cut prosecutions for consensual gay behaviour. But he’s not just a gay rights campaigner. Recently he hit the headlines with his attempts to perform a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe. Last week he hurled himself in front of Tony Blair’s limousine to publicise his “arm the Kurds” strategy for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

He still lives in the same tiny council flat in south-east London, the one his enemies tried to set fire to 20 years ago, around the same time they threw bricks through his windows and shoved a bullet through his letterbox. There are bars on all the windows and no number on the door. Crossing the threshold is like stepping into a time warp. We’re back in the 1980s, not the era of red braces chronicled in the newspapers but the decade of second hand clothes and salvaged furniture and postcards celebrating 1950s kitsch: Margaret Thatcher may have been patron saint of the yuppie but she was also midwife to a generation of thrift shop subversives. Books, magazines and photocopied agitprop are piled on every available surface. A home-made pink triangle dominates one wall.

Tatchell himself has a touch of the man that time forgot, with that tartan shirt-tail hanging below his sweater. There’s a point in middle-age where the boyishly slender start to look shrunken, but he hasn’t reached it. Being knocked out by Mugabe’s bodyguards two years ago has left him with slight brain damage. He’s been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; he’s the victim of two or three attacks or serious menaces every month and permanently tired from his punishing workload, and he hasn’t had a relationship since 1997 (“right now it’s out of the question”) – but he looks oddly well on it.

“The kind of direct action protests I do are very stressful but also quite exciting and sometimes even quite fun,” he says in a voice which still carries a trace of his native Australia. “It beats a boring nine-to-five office job.”

Tatchell was never destined for the boring nine-to-five. For all his careful modesty, he is entirely lacking in self-doubt. Is he ever intimidated by the overwhelming odds against him? “No,” he says unhesitatingly. He’s always been a doer. As an 18-year-old in Melbourne in 1970 he founded the anti-Vietnam War group Christians for Peace and organised a 3,000-strong candlelit march. The following year he left Australia to avoid having to fight in an immoral war, and on arriving in London joined the Gay Liberation Front. He quickly became one of the most active members, running sit-ins in pubs refusing to serve “poofs” and “lezzies”; disrupting a lecture by Hans Eysenck, the IQ guru who favoured “curing” homosexuals with electric shock aversion therapy; and staging the first-ever gay lib protest in the Soviet Bloc. It never occurred to him that as a foreigner he might take a back seat to indigenous campaigners, just as it never crossed his mind that maybe it wasn’t his place to lobby the ANC into making a commitment to homosexual equality, or to set himself up as Mugabe’s personal nemesis.

Even as a child he was like that, he says. His parents were evangelical Christians. “They taught me the importance of standing up for what’s right and not just going along with the crowd. They always stressed that we all have to take personal responsibility for our actions and what’s been done in our name.”

He was the eldest of four children. What little money the family had went on medical bills for his mother who suffered from life-threatening chronic asthma; he remembers coming home hungry and finding the cupboards bare. He was a quiet, shy boy but with a curious adventurous streak, serious beyond his years. As a ten-year-old he followed the black American civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the campaign for aboriginal rights on the nightly news, counting Martin Luther King among his heroes.

His Damascene moment came at the age of 13. An Australian prisoner, Robert Ryan, was charged with murdering a warder during an escape, but the young Tatchell worked out that the bullet’s trajectory meant it could not have been fired by Ryan. He wrote to the papers. Ryan was hanged. Thirty years later a commission of enquiry was to accept what Tatchell had known all along. “The fact that he was hanged despite this huge doubt had an incredibly radicalising influence upon me. It broke my trust in the police, the judicial system and the government, and began to make me question everything I’d ever taken for granted – which wasn’t a lot, since I’d been a pretty questioning child.” It was around this time he started to see the narrow-minded, puritanical, repressive aspects of his upbringing. At 17 he came out as gay, abandoning his religious faith two years later.

Though he was politically active throughout his twenties, it was standing as Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election which turned him into the driven, arguably obsessional, campaigner he is today. His sexuality was seized on by his opponents. Graffiti appeared all over the constituency: “Tatchell is a communist poof”, “Tatchell is a nigger-lover”. The Sun printed a photograph touched-up to make it appear that he was wearing make-up. An abusive leaflet containing his address and telephone number was widely circulated. The police refused to offer protection. In the 15 months before the poll he was assaulted more than 150 times. Fists, rocks, bottles, lumps of wood… There was an attempt to stab him. He was run over three times. Mostly his assailants were groups of young men. “The safest defence was to run. I couldn’t have physically fought four or five guys at once.”

It’s a telling remark. He may admire Mahatma Gandhi and espouse non-violent direct action, but Tatchell is no wimp. That doctored Sun photo couldn’t have been more misleading. All the evidence points to a reckless courage bordering on machismo. His friend, the former editor of Cosmopolitan, Marcelle d’Argy Smith, describes him as “practically a Hemingway hero”. Last summer he and two others ambushed the boxer Mike Tyson outside a Memphis gym, challenging him to stop making homophobic comments. “It was scary,” he admits. “I didn’t know how he would react. I was hoping that he would engage in a dialogue but fearing that he could just as easily let loose a right hook that would knock me to the ground and could do some very serious damage.” Fortunately Tyson chose the former response.

Seven years after dodging the draft, Tatchell applied for an officer’s commission in the Royal Artillery, underwent training in artillery and tank warfare and was offered a place at Sandhurst. He turned it down, since he was actually researching a book on the class-ridden, anti-democratic, imperialist culture of the British armed forces. But a few years later he was lecturing at Sandhurst and other military institutions on his strategy of non-nuclear “defensive defence”.

I have a theory about Peter Tatchell which I put to him and he rejects but which seems worth airing anyway. Everybody has paths not taken in life, opportunities passed over with the thought “It’s not for me”. For Tatchell it’s different. He’s the draft-dodger who ends up respected by the military. He renounces Christianity, and later outs ten bishops; in 1998 he takes over the pulpit while the Archbishop of Canterbury is preaching his televised Easter sermon. This leads to a dialogue between the Anglican Church and gay Christians. The result? A marked reduction in anti-gay pronouncements. Consider his detailed plans for a civil commitment pact: it’s not enough to campaign for homosexual liberation, he has to come up with a replacement for marriage which would transform the legal basis of all partnerships, straight and gay.

He argues that this pattern is a by-product of the campaigning, not its motivation: he has espoused many causes with which he has no personal connection. True enough, but if he senses a challenge he’ll never let it go.

In a recent newspaper profile an unnamed acquaintance described him as “a bit autistic”. Sitting in the ordered chaos of his flat, hearing how he answers up to 400 e-mails a day, this seems a distinct possibility. He talks ve-ry slow-ly as if giving dictation, frequently stopping in mid-sentence to revise his choice of words. But there’s another side to him too: Tatchell the playful; the engaging face-puller and head-waggler, with his now arch, now gruff, comic asides.

At one point he jumps up to fetch a cardboard box which arrived recently in the post. Balancing it gingerly on the palm of his hand, he says his first thought was “it’s probably nothing” but still, he has to be suspicious of unexpected packages. Phoning the Bomb Squad takes forever, so he decided to open it himself. Taking a Stanley knife – he mimes the action – he cut very carefully along the sides and saw that the box was stuffed with compacted tissue paper. Again very carefully, he used the knife to cut through the tissue. By now I’m on the edge of my seat, half-expecting the box to explode in his hand. He saw a piece of paper inside the tissue and, using a pair of tweezers, extracted it … “It said: ‘Enclosed are your dental records’.”

Scratch the surface earnestness and Tatchell’s a performer. His first job on leaving school at 16 was as a department store window-dresser. “My first love was art and design, my gut instinct is towards imaginative and creative work.” In 1990 he co-founded OutRage! the queer rights group famed for its quasi-Situationist “zaps”. The most elaborate involve script writers, graphic designers, stage managers, musicians and costume makers, but even the simplest show a certain flair. To protest at the now-lifted ban on gays in the military, statues of Field Marshall Haig and Admiral Mountbatten were posthumously outed, Haig being draped with a pink feather boa while Mountbatten had a placard hung around his neck reading “For Queens and Country”. Other stunts have included a Queer Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph, a mass “queer wedding” in Trafalgar Square, a gay and lesbian “kiss-in” under the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, and a “wink-in” to highlight the absurdity of laws banning the mildest gay activity in public. Most of the zaps have been Tatchell’s idea.

There are all sorts of issues I never get round to discussing with Peter Tatchell. His gay sex manual, Safer Sexy. His protest against violently homophobic lyrics in Jamaican reggae music. His Aids campaigning. His attempt to have Henry Kissinger arrested for war crimes in Indo-China. His calls for education about homosexuality and HIV-prevention in primary schools. The stands he has taken on animal-based medical research, the Damilola Taylor murder enquiry, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and West Papua, the Burmese junta, the regimes in Gibraltar, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran … There’s more, but The Scotsman would run out of space before Tatchell ran out of indignation.

His gains for gay rights are undeniable, but his protracted war of attrition against global human rights abusers has proved less efficacious. For all the congratulatory e-mails Tatchell has received from Zimbabwe, Mugabe is still president, the torture practised by his regime still unavenged and likely to remain so despite Tatchell’s plans to apply to a London magistrate for an arrest warrant and extradition order. His next project will be highlighting human rights abuses in Egypt, but it’s doubtful president Mubarak is quaking in his boots.

Anyone else would reckon they’d done their stint and be thinking about retiring from the fray, but Tatchell’s in for the long haul. “A lot of people on the left are basically negative oppositional campaigners. They’re anti-this and anti-that. I’m more inclined to be a campaigner for things,” he says. “I think the difference I make is rather small and modest but the incremental effect over time perhaps does make things better for a few people.”

Say what you like about Peter Tatchell – that he’s sacrificed his private life to the cause; that he’s a political Peter Pan; that no normal 51-year-old works 70 hours a week unpaid – he puts us grown-up, solid citizens to shame.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

I’m not unusual – Tommy Sheridan

November 25, 2000

Mr 1:30 does not get in until after two, which means Ms 2pm and Ms 3-brought-forward-to-2 (that’s me) are seen at 2:45, at which point the secretary reminds him about Mr 4pm who insists he was Mr 3 and finally gets rescheduled as Monday’s Mr 2. Though I may be confusing him with Councillor 4:15 who is seen at 4:45 when he can’t hang around any longer, or Mr Waiting-all-Afternoon who finally gives up and goes away. As for Ms 5:30 (who thought she was Ms 5), she won’t be seen until around seven, and only then after a row, and she’s his wife. But more of that later.

The point is, there are good reasons why your correspondent is sitting in an untidy office in Glasgow City Chambers watching Tommy Sheridan being grilled by a student journalist. It’s an unorthodox arrangement, but it does allow me to observe him in a moment of unforced happiness, explaining how Lenin came to power in 1917.

This is the interview with Tommy Sheridan I desperately wanted to avoid.

A brief flashback to the summer of 1992. Saughton Prison. Tommy had not yet founded the Scottish Socialist Party or been returned as the Scottish parliament’s only Socialist MSP, but already he had the whiff of Destiny about him. He had just been elected as a Glasgow councillor, conducting his campaign from jail where he was spending four months for protesting at a warrant sale and putting himself in contempt of court. For two hours I tried to uncover the inner Tommy Sheridan. He explained, politely but firmly, that I was barking up the wrong tree. His experience was collective: he couldn’t talk about himself in isolation because he couldn’t think of himself in isolation. Now, as he was saying, the class struggle…

Fast forward to November 2000. At the age of 37 Sheridan is facing jail again, this time for protesting against Trident and refusing to pay the fine. He has moved on in the intervening years. He now considers Naomi Campbell a potential class warrior. Next month sees the publication of his socialist handbook, Imagine. Gone is the dogma of the old “anyone not with us is against us” hard left. The principles may be fixed, but their application is a matter for dialogue. The rich are still the enemy, but the hated bourgeoisie has been redeemed by “re-proletarianisation”. Sheridan’s working class is a broad church which includes college lecturers, fashion models and orchestral musicians.

Reading Imagine is a schizoid experience. Many of his proposals would gladden liberal consciences across the land: community crèches; round-the-clock child care centres; several years’ paid maternity and paternity leave; and a national minimum wage for full-time carers. But that’s the conservative end of his wish-list. He also foresees the 20 or even ten-hour maximum working week, annual elections via the internet, online referenda to decide all big issues, tobacco available only on prescription, an end to wasteful production of luxury goods for the rich, a quality control system to stop the world’s markets being flooded with cheap trash, Hollywood hacks liberated to write literary masterpieces, an agrarian revolution to oust the giant landowners, a global confederation of socialist states and, as the inevitable consequence of the above, a revolution in human personality.

There are passages where the reader finds herself wondering if the author is a fully paid-up member of the human race.

Of course that’s what we always say about unrepentant Marxists. Once they start talking about ending war and saving the starving we decide that they are: a) on the take, or b) not living in the real world. No-one could accuse Sheridan of the former. He is so anti-materialistic (apart from in the dialectical sense) that last year he took home just £14,400 of the £65,600 he earned. The rest went to the SSP and the upkeep of a community hall in Pollok. But on the charge of unworldliness he might prove more vulnerable. Just don’t expect him to concede it.

“My whole life is based on the idea that I don’t think I’m unusual at all. I think many people are unconscious socialists.”

To get the cheap gag over with quickly, he doesn’t look like your average earthling. It’s something of a journalistic challenge, coining new similes for the colour of Tommy’s skin. The brilliant whites of his eyes in that brown mask are oddly stagy, as if he’s playing in a pre-PC amateur production of Showboat. His opponents accuse him of “sunbed socialism”. “So pithy and pathetic,” he spits. He thinks it looks nice.

He’s the first to mention the word vanity. When he was in prison and the other inmates were getting drugs smuggled in, he was begging his pals for deodorant and aftershave. He likes people to think he’s attractive, for God’s sake. And there are political benefits. “There’s an appeal probably to a female constituency, in the sense that I look quite decent, I look after my appearance, therefore I’m not a nutter. I’m not weird in that I don’t care how I look.”

An anecdote or, as they often seem when Sheridan tells them, a parable. Recently he found himself sharing a train carriage with a group of football supporters travelling to Glasgow for a Scotland game. Spotting him, they started singing “One Tommy Sheridan, there’s only one Tommy Sheridan …” They had seen him on the news after the Faslane court case and were urging him not to pay the fine. “It was a both dead embarrassing and very proud moment.” The white-haired woman sitting next to him remarked that she never thought young people could be inspired by politicians.

He could talk to those boys, he says, in case I’ve missed the point. “I don’t consider myself unusual: I’m a working-class boy with some working-class faults and some working-class advantages.”

But how many working-class boys earning £65,000 give five-sevenths of it away? How many working-class boys made a clenched fist salute as they were sworn in to the Scottish parliament? How many popular Socialist heroes do we currently have in Scotland? There’s only one Tommy Sheridan.

He neither smokes nor, since a precocious binge at the age of 11, does he drink. He tried cannabis as a student but didn’t realise he was supposed to inhale. This claim, so ludicrous on the lips of Bill Clinton, is strangely plausible. There’s something untouched about Tommy, an innocence. I’m not just talking about his politics, his friends can see it when he’s singing karaoke. His confidence has never even been chipped.

Ask about his background and he’ll tell you how happy and loving it was. The first time I heard this I wanted to know what he was hiding, no-one could be that blessed. But maybe that’s his secret. What might render an intelligent man capable of extraordinarily unshakeable idealism? An extraordinarily secure childhood, perhaps.

He was the youngest of three and the only boy. Probably spoiled, he says: not materially but emotionally. His mother and father separated when he was 17. “They were absolutely fantastic parents but I think they weren’t a very good couple.”

His mother, Alice, left school at 14, worked as a cleaner in pubs and clubs, then put herself through college and university to qualify as a social worker. Young Tommy used to hate the unions, his mother was always out at meetings, but gradually he came to share her principles. His father Thomas is a very different character. Less demanding. “Dead nice guy,” people say, “wouldn’t harm a fly.” He, too, shaped Sheridan’s politics. He was president of the local football club, Pollok United: the epitome of a local community activist. Every Friday night he’d be at the laundromat with the strips. Saturday, he’d be sweeping the park. The only reward was seeing his boy play football. He hoped Tommy would play professionally one day.

Politically, Sheridan has his mother’s impatience with the status quo. Personally, he has inherited his father’s easy-going ways. His wife thinks he doesn’t complain enough. “If somebody says they’re going to deliver a telly and they’re two days late, she thinks the riot act should be read.”

Are there ever times when he feels complicated to himself? He does not even hesitate. “No, I think I’m quite a straightforward guy. I don’t think I’m complex at all.”

And yet in Imagine he writes: “Humans are … complex emotional beings capable of experiencing and conveying passion, humour, rage, jealousy, sorrow, love, hatred, sympathy, and a range of other feelings …” So, I challenge Tommy Sheridan to live down to his own definition. Prove to us fallible mortals that you belong on planet Earth.

Whom has he hated in his life? “Thatcher,” predictably. He tells a story about hitting her car with an egg ten years ago. He was arrested by the Special Branch (“a nasty arrest, it was the face down on the ground with the arms up the back and the foot on the back”). Handcuffed and bundled into a police van, he realised he still had a second incriminating egg in his pocket. He hid it under a policeman’s anorak. When they released him he had no money to get home but made a class appeal to the train driver who let him travel for free. We’ll call this parable number two.

Personally, he’s never felt hatred. He’s had a lucky life. His mother once went up to the school to complain because he’d been nicknamed “the long-haired lover from Liverpool” and some of the teachers were taking the mickey, but it didn’t worry him. He was always one of the gang, probably one of the leaders. He could play football, he was reasonably fit. “I never ever felt I was in the position that people were taking the piss out of me.” He has always had a long fuse. People slag him, politicians have a go, but he keeps his cool. “I always remember a wee saying from Lenin: he who loses his temper loses his head.”

Oh come on, surely he must have lost control once in his life? Thinking this over, he makes a curious face, baring his teeth and pouting his lips in a sort of kissy snarl. Eventually he retrieves a memory of getting separated from his comrades on an anti-fascist demonstration and finding himself face-to-face with a fairly well-known right-winger. He lost the place and started kicking into this guy. “Sometimes it may be justified,” he murmurs.

Parable number three.

Asked about jealousy, he becomes a little less guarded, since there is nothing to lose by opening up. “It frustrates Gail a hell of a lot. She’ll tell me that some officer on her plane was chatting her up and has offered to take her out to dinner. She’s quite consciously telling me this to try to make me jealous. I’m saying, ‘I don’t blame them, you’re a good-looking woman’.” He’s hardly got a jealous bone in his body. Although when he sees the other political parties’ apparatus and resources, he does feel a twinge.

What about passion? “Politically …” Yes, yes, that goes without saying. “I think I’ve got personal passion as well. Gail would argue that I’m not passionate enough – that’s fair criticism. She would also argue that I’ve got my moments. If you mix passion with the romance side then I’ve that as well.”

Cynics say that Gail Sheridan is Tommy’s prize political asset: a smart, droll-tongued Glasgow glamour-puss, and a class-fighter to boot. Heroes need to be cut down to size now and again, otherwise they start to look arrogant, but they can’t afford to let their opponents score points. Who better to perform this service than the wife? Before their wedding in June, Gail was interviewed in the Daily Record (until recently Sheridan wrote a column for the paper). Recalling Tommy’s famous clenched fist salute, she said: “He looked like a wee boy, my wee boy, taking his first communion.” (Parable number four.)

But even hardened cynics cannot entirely discount “the romance side”. Once started, he won’t shut up about her. “Gail’s a very warm person, a very giving person, very supportive. Probably that arises from her Catholicism, her upbringing. She’s very working class, very community-oriented, a strong trade unionist…” She was a shop steward during the 1997-8 British Airways strike, when Glasgow had the biggest turn-out of strikers in the UK. All this and she taught him the difference between love and sex too.

By his mid to late twenties he was a bit more responsible, but as a youngster he was very careless with people’s emotions. “I was probably a bit of a male whore. Sex was a form of recreation.” Well, he still thinks of it that way, but it’s deeper, more important and more satisfying with someone you love. Not that he has any hang-ups about people who do it just for fun, he says with a canny eye on the promiscuous vote.

Gail and he have their differences, of course. She’ll take half an hour to get ready if they’re going out for a bag of chips; two hours for a night out. “I think she’s far too vain, and that’s coming from someone who’s quite vain himself. Probably a wee chink in her confidence there about how she looks …”

Then there’s the touchy subject of his working hours. “She can be a right pain in the arse,” he says bluntly. She moans about the lack of time he spends in the house, and the leisure hours he spends playing and watching football. Her attitude is that if she didn’t moan she’d see even less of him. (Just how big a bone of contention this is I am about to discover for myself.) She’s not very pleased about him giving up half his MSP’s salary either. “It’s probably one of the areas I get upset with her more than anything else: she knew what I was like before we were married. She gets on with it, but she does like to bump her gums about it.”

Around this point I start to worry that Tommy Sheridan might be taking the humanity challenge too far.

He didn’t want to get married. For him it was just a piece of paper, a societal stamp of approval. He believes all family units are equally valid, as long as the binding agent is love. But after eight years of having it his way, he felt he owed her something. He offered to take a couple of friends to Cuba and tie the knot quietly, throw a party in Glasgow when they got home. It didn’t quite happen that way.

“When she spoke at the wedding Gail took great delight in reminding the audience of that particular conversation in order to rub my nose in it. She agreed at the time in order to hoodwink me into the sort of marriage she’d always wanted.”

At quarter to five the logistical nightmare that is Sheridan’s diary pulls him away to another meeting, leaving me ample time to inventory the office he shares with his political assistant Keith Baldasarra. Several agitprop posters. Framed photographs of Tommy, Gail, and various relatives. A mock-up of the Sunday Mail showing him having his football shorts pulled-down. A bookshelf with copies of Whitaker’s Almanack, Roget’s Thesaurus, Culture Shock Cuba, and Manumission: The Movie (“Is it a porn film or a seminal work on club culture?” The Guardian). There’s a cluster of thank-you cards on the filing cabinets (“I finally got my husband’s jacket and teeth back after nine weeks, I’m being compensated for the other clothes that went adrift…”).

An hour later Tommy returns, full of apologies, but before we resume he has to phone home. Gail is not happy. She was expecting him at five. The sharpness in her voice carries across the room. Sheridan mumbles placatingly into the telephone, explaining that he’s with a journalist, in fact “she wants to ask you some questions.” This is news to me. The next thing I know there’s a smoking receiver in my hand and a furious woman on the other end of the line. Sheridan has vanished.

The last thing Gail Sheridan wants to discuss is her husband’s sterling qualities. (“Right now I don’t think I could give you an answer because he’s a bloody pain in the neck.”) But politeness gets the better of her and gradually she calms down. As he knew she would.

I can now report that Tommy Sheridan does his share of the housework, irons his own shirts, but won’t touch DIY. When there’s football on the telly, she could be doing the dance of the seven veils and it wouldn’t distract him, but they’re a compatible couple. They say girls go for men who remind them of their daddies. “I’ve immense respect for my dad, if anybody battered you he was the protector. I feel like that with Tommy. He’ll face Goliath. He has no fear of anything and therefore I always feel dead protected that way.”

She rejects any suggestion that he is not of this world. “He’s very much like other people.” He doesn’t drink, but then he doesn’t need to. It can be 5am at a party, with everybody else in the room absolutely plastered, and Tommy will still be on his feet with the karaoke mike, working his way through the back catalogue of Rod Stewart and Elton John. Most people need a drink to make an absolute clown of themselves, Tommy can do it stone cold sober.

At this point he walks back into the office. She recommends that I cover my ears “or you’ll hear me blaspheming”. When he finally puts the phone down he looks chastened: “That’s me given a row.” They were supposed to be buying his sister’s birthday cake at Tesco.

The Scottish Socialist Party was formed in February 1999. Three months later they took two per cent of the Scottish vote. They now have 2,500 members. It’s a modest start but Sheridan has big plans. He was greatly encouraged by the passing of his bill to abolish warrant sales earlier this year. Labour has delayed implementation until 2003, to find an alternative way of attaching movable assets, but that’s the dirty end of politics for you. His current project is a policy to replace council tax with a redistributive Scottish Service Tax. (A random example: Stagecoach millionaire Brian Souter’s annual bill would rise from £1,516 to £82,000.)

He predicts that within ten years his party will have 20-30 MSPs. Once they’re a parliamentary force to be reckoned with, they’ll attract left-wing defectors from other parties. People like Margo MacDonald, he hopes. He is confident that he will see an independent Socialist Scotland in his lifetime. And then comes that revolution in human personality. It’ll take a while, he concedes. But look at Cuba: a whole generation raised without the “me, myself, I” ethic; people who prioritise family, friendship, solidarity. He’s seen for himself how much warmer they are. One day Scotland could be like that.

It’s a seductive vision. I can’t quite believe in it myself, but I’m glad that one of our 129 MSPs does. In Imagine, Tommy Sheridan quotes Oscar Wilde: “Show me a map without Utopia on it and I’ll show you a map that’s not worth looking at.” It’s as good an explanation as any for the boys who sing his name on trains.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Indefatigably yours

May 19, 2003

George Galloway

So here we are, inside the gates with the guard dog warning, behind the locked front door, at home with Britain’s best-dressed “traitor”. After the chat and the toasted pitta, I’m taken on a tour of the pictures. JFK on the upstairs landing, a striking sequence of Che Guevara by the stairs and, in the front room, a wall dedicated to the householder. A framed magazine cover. A black-and-white snap of him as a young firebrand with a full head of hair. Some years older, arguing with a voter. A newspaper caricature riding on a camel. Several colour shots taken with Castro, looking like History is being made.

I’m not here to meet the propagandist allegedly paid by Iraqi intelligence, or the “inciter of war against British troops”, or any of his other media doppelgangers. My brief is to interview the man himself. There’s just one problem: George Galloway is as susceptible to the mythology of George Galloway as anyone.

We’ll start with the media myths, rather than his own. There’s Galloway the flash: the Gucci-shod, Versace-suited geezer with his Mercedes and his Havana cigars; and Galloway the ladies man, who famously admitted carnal knowledge of more than one fellow-delegate at a conference in Greece, the Galloway whose alluring Palestinian wife is pictured in the newspapers every chance they get.

He can restate the facts till he’s hoarse – he never said he’d slept with both women during the conference, he bought the third-hand Mercedes for £17,000, he’s never worn a Gucci shoe, wouldn’t be seen dead in Versace (though he once attended a demonstration carrying a Hugo Boss bag) – it makes no difference: he continues to provoke a mixture of schoolboy envy and disgust in certain quarters. It’s a British reflex with a pedigree stretching back to medieval anti-clericalism: those who profess high ideals must be exposed as motivated by the grossest materialism. Sex or money or, better still, both.

Which is not to say that Galloway did not take Iraqi gold. Frankly, who knows? Even the Telegraph insists it was reporting the content of incriminating Iraqi documents, not actively accusing him.

The first surprise is that, while the myth is larger-than-life, the man is smaller. But then, he has been branded a traitor in the Sun, suspended by the Labour Party, made the subject of inquiries by Labour, the Charity Commission and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, and accused of taking hundreds of thousands from Saddam Hussein. It’s the sort of run of bad luck which might get a person down.

Awake or asleep, it goes round and round in his head. He’s narrowed it down to three possibilities. He may be the victim of British intelligence dirty tricks. Or it may be simple commerce: there are people in Iraq doing a roaring trade in forged papers. Or somebody in Iraq was looting their homeland under the cover of his name. “I’m absolutely confident that these documents will be found to be false, but in a deluge like I’ve just been through it’s difficult to really dry yourself off completely. They really are out to get me on all fronts, carefully co-ordinated, the same day, all processes controlled by the Labour Party.”

So is it the end for George Galloway MP? Minutes later he’s all defiance, shrugging off predictions that Labour’s inquiry (into remarks he made on Abu Dhabi television) will prevent him being selected as candidate for the redrawn Glasgow Central constituency. And anyway: within or outwith the party, in or out of parliament, he’ll remain a politician.

Sitting there with his cup of coffee and his worry beads, he looks … well, truthfully, he looks Arabian. It’s more than the tan, or the Middle Eastern ambience of his house. “I wouldn’t like you to think I’m some sort of Lawrence of Arabia figure,” he says. “I’m really not starry-eyed about the Arabs. I’m playing with worry beads because I’m worried, not because they’re Arab.” Yet he loves Arab culture: the food, the music, the hubble-bubble pipe, the traditional character of the people. “Tremendous warmth and respect and politeness. They’re people with a great concept of honour who believe, like me, that dishonour is worse than death and what matters in life is to strive for the honourable thing.” Another affinity occurs to him. “And a belief in God: that one day you will be judged.”

He’s awed by the happenstance of it: had the centre of world political events been elsewhere, he might have been talking to me about his work in Vietnam or Latin America, but it was an Omar Sharif-lookalike who turned up at the Dundee Labour Party office 30 years ago and opened his eyes to the sufferings of the Palestinians. Those two hours changed the course of his life. He went to Beirut, met Yasser Arafat, got Dundee twinned with Nablus on the occupied West Bank. Years later, addressing a public meeting in Partick, he met a Palestinian woman. She’s now his wife. So he could have married a Vietnamese woman? “I think women are women and men are men, you fall in love with the woman, not her passport – or in my wife’s case her lack of a passport.” But, he concedes, had he been speaking at a meeting about Vietnam, she might not have been in the audience … He believes in kismet.

His wife, Amineh Abu-Zayyad, is in the kitchen with her cousin, toasting pitta bread and keeping out of sight. She’s a molecular cell biologist who specialises in the effect of depleted uranium on children’s cancer epidemics in Iraq. Five years ago Galloway set up the Mariam appeal to publicise the case of a young Iraqi girl who developed leukaemia as a result of the Allies’ use of uranium-tipped weapons in the first Gulf War. It was through Amineh that Galloway met Fawaz Zureikat, the Jordanian accused alongside him by the Telegraph. Her uncle is Saddam Hussein’s biographer. Galloway is aware of a tendency in the media, and even in people half close to him, to blame her for his current predicament. “People ask me if I do what I do because of her. She was a small child when I started. Not only does she not push me, she’s frequently asked me to forget the Arabs, to stop this, to be a British politician concentrating on British issues.”

Thousands of words have been written about Galloway and Iraq, but the facts bear repetition. His demonstrations against the regime in the late 1970s. His repeated denunciations of the dictator. Then, in 1994, his apparent volte-face. The televised meeting where he seemed to salute Saddam’s courage, strength and indefatigability (he says he was quoted out of context and was praising the Iraqi people). Shaken by the ensuing furore, he didn’t campaign on Iraq for four years. But in 1998, with war on the horizon and children dying as a result of UN sanctions, he launched the Mariam appeal. Last summer he met Saddam for the second and last time, interviewing him for the Mail on Sunday. Readers learned of the dictator’s gentle handshake, his diffident manner and his admiration for all things British, from Quality Street chocolates to red double-deckers and three-pin plugs. (“I was trying to stop a war,” Galloway says testily. “I’m not pretending to you it was from the purest school of objective writing.”)

Could he not have campaigned against sanctions while continuing to highlight Saddam’s abuses of human rights? “If you were going to get inside what was happening in sanctions-stretched Iraq, to really smell the suffering, to see the death and destruction being caused, you had to go to Iraq. I took countless journalists, parliamentarians, activists to Iraq, and you had to deal with the Iraqi leadership to do that.”

Yet the way he embraced the role of “member for Baghdad Central” seemed beyond mere expediency. He was brave and foolish, he says. “I know that discretion would have been the better part of valour in the sense that if I hadn’t been so far out in front, so passionately taking on the most powerful enemies in the world, I wouldn’t now be wounded in the way that I am. That’s what I mean by foolish. Would I do it again? Yes I would. Maybe that makes me even more foolish.”

He’s not the type to learn from his mistakes? “As they say, the human being is the only animal that stubs its toe on the same rock twice, so I don’t learn as well as I should, but life is short, and there’s so much to do. If you spent your time worrying overmuch about what mistakes you might make, you wouldn’t do half of what you could be doing.” He smiles ruefully: “But I never said ‘indefatigability’ again.”

Over 20 years ago the Telegraph tried – and failed – to tie him into a fantastical tale of PLO gold and covert ownership of the Lee Jeans factory in Greenock. In 1991 a Charity Commission report into War on Want’s finances found that he and his successor as general secretary had lacked expertise in crucial areas. He paid back £1,700 he had claimed in expenses. Now we have another Telegraph allegation and another Charity Commission inquiry, into the Mariam appeal. His attitude to money leaves him vulnerable to such suspicions. Unlike the Scottish Socialist Party MSPs, with their denunciations of “fat cats” and their average worker’s wage, Galloway disdains the whole issue. He’s not interested in money, he says. At the same time, he’s not the frugal type. “As I told Tommy Sheridan once, I couldn’t live on three workers’ wages.

“I spend my life working, I don’t do anything else: I don’t go to casinos, I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve meetings nearly every night of the week. Of course I don’t go around in sackcloth and ashes, why should I? Everything I have in life I’ve earned myself. Every penny I make I spend. I earned nearly £150,000 last year: I’ve got an overdraft. I don’t have any savings. I spend it on the move on the things I need to function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system.”

Hundreds of people have written to him and rallied in his support. Read the Guardian letters page: he’s a hero of the Left – though not as far left as you might think. He’s not a command economy socialist. He believes certain aspects of capitalism are inescapably with us: the state is bad at running restaurants, private individuals are better. “I’m a centre-left Labour man. I’ve never been in the Campaign Group, I’ve never been a Trotskyist, I’ve never been a Communist, I occupy a piece of political ground that was once commonplace but can be caricatured as being extreme now only because of how the political centre of gravity has moved.”

Though no-one cares in today’s Labour Party, he boasts impeccable working-class credentials: brought up in a Dundee council house, both sets of grandparents in the jute mills. His father worked his way up from electrician to electro-mechanical engineer at NCR and, when made redundant, retrained as a teacher. A Labour and union man, he always spruced himself up in suit, tie and Brylcreem before meetings. His son has inherited this sartorial pride. The gift of the gab he gets from his Irish-descended mother, a factory worker and, later, a cleaner. While her husband was a fervent patriot, she was critical of Britain’s role in the world. Young George took his mother’s side of the argument.

It was a political household. His father only watched BBC (ITV was “rubbish”). Dinner table conversation focused on the great issues of the day. At primary school George could recite Kennedy’s speeches. At 13 he enlisted in the Young Socialists. At 15 he grew a moustache in emulation of his hero Che. After leaving school he worked in the mills and a tyre factory, cut grass as a garden labourer … “But really from an early age I was a full-time political activist waiting to be freed to do so.”

The jingoistic father whose offspring is branded a traitor … it sounds awfully like a twist on the age-old family struggle. Not so, he says. He respected his father, though they had their political differences, some of them quite serious. Their last conversation before his father’s death was a row, to his enduring regret. “My father believed that Britain was the best country in the world, Scotland was the best part of Britain, Dundee was the best part of Scotland. I always believed he’d exaggerated and accentuated the good things about Britain – of which there are many – and that this was implicitly racist, really. I rebuked him for telling my nephew that the British Museum was the greatest museum in the world. ‘Why are you bringing him up the way you brought us up, to believe that everything British is best? It’s not true. Nearly everything in the British Museum has been stolen from other people …’ That sort of row. Stupid, really.”

Galloway pauses and, lifting my head from my notebook, I see tears in his eyes. Looking into his watery gaze, my first response is to wonder whether he is suffering from an eye infection. Then I feel guilty for this thought. Then it registers that he stopped speaking and stared at me until I noticed. It’s not that I think he’s faking, more that everything he says and does has a quality of knowingness about it. He speaks in long, elegantly constructed sentences. His least significant remarks are irresistibly quotable. As a result, even his rawest admissions feel oddly impersonal, as if he’s talking to an invisible third party. Though his situation hardly requires it, he has a tendency to over-dramatise, referring to his “enemies”; describing himself as “bloodied but unbowed”; telling me that as he left a rally of supporters “strong men wept”. At times his voice assumes a self-consciously tragic timbre. To be honest, he’s a bit of a ham.

His media savvy shouldn’t really surprise me. He pens a weekly column for the Scottish Mail on Sunday and “two or three” of his five closest friends are journalists. He has spoken to Seumas Milne of the Guardian and John Boothman, editor of BBC Scotland’s Holyrood Live, every day for 20 years or more. BBC news correspondent Bob Wylie is another close friend, as is Ron McKay, the man who commissioned Tony Benn’s television interview with Saddam. They, not his fellow MPs, are his political sounding boards.

It’s not journalists per se he’s drawn to: most of them are unprincipled and hypocritical. (Like most politicians, he adds.) But he’s open to the idea that the best of the breed are essentially independent, no matter who pays their wages. He’s often labelled a maverick: one of the dictionary definitions of the word is “an unbranded beast”. “I’m not owned by anyone and I like that in people.”

This is precisely the trait which is said to upset his fellow Labour MPs. He’s been described as a parliamentary loner, though he bridles at the phrase. “I don’t drink so I’m never in the bars. There’s only so much tea you can drink in the tea room. I spend my life on the campaign trail. If they mean by that ‘am I clubbable in the House of Commons sense?’ I’m not, but I don’t think I’m unpersonable.”

Tony Benn and Michael Foot have been in regular contact during his current difficulties. Members of the Campaign Group are constantly issuing supportive statements. On the other hand, “Parliament’s a very unfraternal environment. Most people there see themselves as entire unto themselves and almost in competition with others. And there’s a fantastic amount of intimidation …”

It’s no accident that the three inquiries into him were announced the day before the vote on foundation hospitals, he says, and no accident that the Labour revolt was a damp squib. “There are two MPs who used to speak to me but who walked past me the last time they saw me. Neither of them is a household name, perhaps even in their own house, so I was mildly amused rather than hurt.”

Galloway the unclubbable, shunning the bars of Westminster for the campaign trail; Galloway the member for Baghdad Central; Galloway the unbranded beast … it’s hard to avoid the impression that he finds something reinforcing in the role of outsider. In his 35-year membership of the party, he has never held power. He insists he’d be good at it: compromising, keeping quiet, making deals, doing the things that political leaders need to do. He’s not temperamentally averse to the responsibilities of power, “but I don’t think I’ll persuade you of that”.

Well, he might have done had he not added that rider. The problem with trying to disentangle George Galloway the man from his image is that, though he’ll acknowledge where the two part company, he never quite kills off the myths.

Showing off his pictures of Che Guevara, he makes a big deal of pointing out his favourite, knowing the conclusions I’ll draw. Guevara stands in front of a microphone in a packed theatre, spotlit by hard white light. The revolutionary as rock star. It’s like that moment in a movie when they cut the sound: iconic, portentous. Despite the crowd, he looks utterly alone.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Dispatches from the rural front – the Buccleuch Hunt

February 10, 2001

A cold blustery Borders day. Don’t ask where – I’m a townie and this is open country. A fox flashes across a field. Two minutes later the hounds arrive, 40 of them, barking and yelping, milling around in chaotic circles. The red-coated huntsman toots on his horn, tries the guttural snarl that countrymen use to call their dogs. The horses turn up next, ridden by women raw-faced with cold. Perplexedly, they trot around the field. What’s happening? The wind, a foot follower explains: it plays havoc with the scent.

Ten minutes later we’re up on an old Roman road, the foot followers and I. Another fox runs across a ploughed field, doubles back and sprints along the line of a ditch. A handful of riders appear with a straggle of mud-spattered hounds. They hang about doing nothing very much. After a minute or two a footie tells them that we saw a fox, but he’ll be long gone by now.

There are all sorts of pleasures to be had following the Buccleuch Hunt. Schadenfreude. The stark beauty of the Borders landscape: churned red earth, snow-patched hills, beech hedges rusty in the pale winter sun. And the company of Ian Brodie, 67, retired joiner and lifelong foot follower. If you live in the city you may not have met anyone like Ian, but if you’re a country-dweller you’ll know the type: shrewd blue eyes and the raspberry mousse of broken blood vessels that is the countryman’s complexion. He’s out with the hunt twice a week in all weathers.

After the early excitement, we footies hit a luckless patch. Fox, hounds, riders, all elude us. We park at the side of the road. (Footies drive cars. While we’re at it, the riders are known as “the field”. It doesn’t do to get these things wrong, to be caught out on the wrong side of the town/country divide.) Thermos flasks are poured. Suddenly Ian tilts his head, his face rapt with pleasure and excitement and something else, a kind of religious awe. “I hear the hounds speaking.” We strain our ears. Carried on the buffeting wind is a faint high-pitched staccato. The steaming tea is tossed on the tarmac. We’re off again.

As we go Ian details the likely impact of a ban on fox-hunting. The spectre of bankruptcy hanging over the blacksmith, the riding stable, maybe even the local dealers of four-by-four vehicles. The grim fate awaiting the horses and hounds. The loss of countless social occasions binding the community together: hunter trials, point to point, the puppy show, balls and barn dances, hunt breakfasts, ladies’ lunches, dinners and do’s… Then there’s his own personal unhappiness. “I don’t know what I’d do – hang myself from a tree.”

In the country there’s no debate about fox-hunting. Only consternation. They can’t understand why a perfectly legal, well-regulated pastime is about to be outlawed. Whatever happened to tolerance, what about their human rights?

Mention fox-hunting anywhere in the city. Go on – try it. The debate doesn’t last long there, either. Cruelty. Barbarism. Sadistic upper-class gits. Human rights? What sort of human being finds killing foxes fun?

Richard and Lesley live a double life: city folk who weekend in the country. Lifelong Labour-voters who have spent ten sleepless years in the service of the NHS, their liberal credentials are impeccable. It’s just that seven years ago they discovered they enjoyed hunting foxes. They have no qualms about admitting this in the Border village of Kirk Yetholm where they own a cottage, but ask them to say as much in a newspaper read by their fellow-citizens in Edinburgh and they insist that their surnames are withheld.

Richard, 35, is a specialist registrar: tall, curly-haired, a passing resemblance to the actor Stephen Tompkinson enhanced by his Mancunian accent. He keeps nipping out to the kitchen to check the score in the Manchester United game. Lesley, 34, sits on the sofa cuddling Buster, a snoring Staffordshire bull terrier. She’s a consultant anaesthetist, originally from Falkirk.

The first time they went out with the hunt was a Saturday morning, she remembers. It had been one of those hideous Friday nights: working flat out.

“We headed off down the road to this muddy cowshed. I thought, ‘What on Earth are we doing this for?’ And we loved it. We’ve been doing it ever since and we spend all our time and all our money doing it.”

They ride with the Buccleuch every week. There’s nothing like it for beating stress, she says. If she’s on call all night and has the next day off, she doesn’t bother going to bed, just collects her hunting gear and drives down to the Borders. By the end of the day she’s physically tired instead of mentally tired, and feels much better for it.

“If you’d asked me beforehand, I would have said it’s a terrible thing to do. I kind of did it and thought, ‘I like doing this but I don’t know how I can square it with my conscience. Now I can square it very easily with my conscience. It’s certainly no worse than other ways of controlling foxes.”

Inevitably, they argue with their friends in Edinburgh. The initial response is frankly appalled, but once they’ve explained their position, attitudes tend to soften. Most say they don’t agree with foxhunting but concede that there has to be freedom of choice. Maybe it’s because he works with cancer patients, Richard speculates. “They think there are worse things going on in the world.” After all, Lesley adds, “the last guy to ban hunting was in Germany in the 1930s.”

Both Holyrood and Westminster are processing bills to ban fox-hunting. Whether these bills survive unamended remains to be seen. Certainly the hunting fraternity has not given up the fight. They’ll summarise the relative merits of hunting, snaring and shooting at the drop of a hat. (With hunting the fox dies instantly, no gnawing its own leg off to escape the trap, no wounded animals trailing the countryside.) They’ll remind you that cats are the cruellest of all creatures, killing vast numbers of smaller mammals and birds, and yet city people love their cats. None of us would eat meat or eggs if we were truly concerned for animal welfare…They even have a theory about why the antis feel so strongly: the sight of groups of people charging about on horseback triggers a folk memory of ancient wars.

All very interesting, but for my purposes beside the point. All I want is the answer to one simple townie’s question: why? What’s the appeal of hunting foxes? It must be pretty potent to be worth weathering the storm of public outrage, so how does the pleasure work?

There has to be a suspicion that social cachet plays its part. The Buccleuch Hunt has existed since 1823. The ninth duke, Scotland’s largest private landowner, turns up at the meets once in a while, though he no longer rides, having been confined to a wheelchair by a hunting accident. Historically the Buccleuch was the classiest of the Scottish hunts, it used to be known as “the veiled ladies”. But the first thing they’ll tell you is that those days are gone. The Duke of Roxburghe may hunt with them, but so do various chefs, electricians and hairdressers, along with dentists, solicitors, wing commanders, pension fund investors… Hunting admits all sorts these days, as long as they can afford the £100 or so it costs to hire a horse and pay the day’s subscription.

Pat Marjoribanks is Borders born and bred, dark-haired, earthily glamorous, 50 years old, though you wouldn’t know it. (“Used to be married to the plumber, now she’s married to the fencer,” a hunt master says helpfully.) There’s a fox’s brush hanging in the hall of her home near Abbotsford, and a fox’s head mounted above the door to the living room. She has been hunting for 30 years. For a long time it was 95 per cent of her life: she was out with the Buccleuch three times a week. These days it’s once a week, weather permitting, but her passion for the chase is undiminished.

Everyone’s more equal now, but she remembers the snobbery well enough. She was working on her father’s farm when she started hunting. There was more aristocracy then: you had to be careful not to ride in front of them. Some of the characters were pretty awesome. Once she got off her horse to open a gate and had to stay there, knee-deep in water, as her betters rode through. “I stood with my boots filling up saying, ‘I don’t mind at all’.” Everyone hunts for different reasons. Company, physical exercise, love of the countryside, the bond between horse and rider, the adrenaline rush of danger, the technical appeal of a highly complicated sport.

Pat adds a new one to the list: she loves foxes. Beautiful animals. She can stand for hours watching them. Most hunting people feel the same.

This is country logic, hard for townies to get their heads around. Apparently banning hunting would be a disservice to the fox, maybe even hastening its extinction. Hunting is a form of natural selection, the weak are picked-off leaving the strong to perpetuate the species. It’s a sort of kindness.

Pat is impatient with talk of the fox-hunters’ bloodlust. They don’t crowd in to see the kill. They’re usually kept well back so the hounds can do their work. She’s seen it perhaps half a dozen times in 30 years, and only then because she was whipping-in the dogs. She hasn’t seen a blooding (where a child out for the first time is daubed in the fox’s blood) for 20-odd years. And as for that sentimental twaddle about foxes being torn to pieces: it happens, but only after they’re dead. “I don’t eat my steak when it’s still on the hoof and the same applies to the hounds.” It’s a wee reward for them when they’ve been working well. “There are other occasions when Charlie’s got away and you’re quite delighted. You think, ‘Well done him’.”

Charlie? After the 18th-century prime minister Charles James Fox, apparently. Which explains everything and nothing. It’s not just that fox-hunting folk give their quarry a name, many seem to credit it with a personality, too. They’ll talk up his cunning (it is always a he), the way he’ll throw the hounds off the scent by running through water or across a field spread with slurry or along the top of a wall. They’ll tell you they’ve seen him climb a tree and look down smugly on the hounds, or change places with another fox, taking it in turns to be chased. This is why drag hunting will never be an adequate substitute. They don’t want to hunt a man trailing an aniseed rag over a predetermined course, they want an unpredictable opponent, a creature with its own distinctive intelligence.

“To me it’s about the only natural thing, as near a natural hobby as you could have nowadays. Everything else is contrived or mechanical or electronic or computerised. Even shooting and fishing are not as natural as they once were. No foxes are reared for hunting. They haven’t been semi-domesticated. They’re totally wild animals and have wild instincts. It’s really pitting your wits against nature. One animal pitting its wits against another one.”

From the urban perspective the obvious question is: why don’t people who hunt feel guilty? From the rural side of the divide the answer is no less obvious: it is the hounds who hunt, following their instinct, as the fox follows his. To call it cruel is to misunderstand nature. “What people tend to forget is that, as far as I know, foxes don’t think like humans: they’re wild animals. The hounds don’t think like humans either: they’re animals. And in the animal kingdom everything’s got its predator. They expect to be hunted down.”

After a few days in hunting circles, something dawns on the urban visitor: they’re not just putting a brave front on a barbarian pleasure. They think it’s OK – more than OK: they believe that fox-hunting is right. There is a look in their eyes when they explain it to the townie: the confidence that comes with the moral high ground.

Carolyn “Snippet” Innes, 44, comes closer to the townie’s cliché of the fox-hunting type, with her Oxfordshire vowels, her grand pink house in Lauderdale, her tennis court and stables. Even the childhood nickname that stuck (a reference to her size). She used to run a children’s clothing company but these days being one of the Buccleuch’s five hunt masters takes up most of her time. I find her in the stables, a tiny figure in wellingtons, muddy anorak and multicoloured hat, draping a double duvet over a huge bay hunter. A fox-hound puppy nudges my legs inquisitively. Its coat is dotted with blue dye, the result of a neighbouring farmer trying to turn it into a Dalmatian. Country people, they’re a different breed.

It turns out that Snippet is thinking along similar lines. They have no seasons in the city, she says. She’s seen them, driving round in their shirt sleeves in the middle of winter. They have no idea that sausages are made of pig. They think milk comes from the carton, not a cow. Faced with a lumberjack at work, they ask but doesn’t that hurt the tree? “I don’t think they understand the fox will kill not one chicken, it’ll kill the whole lot and maybe take one to eat.”

There is an aggression in all of us. Far better to get it out through hunting than to channel it in other ways. “You very rarely see people who ride and hunt in any sort of drug trouble.”

She talks me around the eight horses in the stables. This one’s an ex-racehorse, that one had the breeding but never grew big enough, this one won 17 races before being retired. “His life wouldn’t be much good if hunting went…” The implication is clear. A ban won’t save the foxes, the farmers will resort to other means of pest control. All the animal-lovers will achieve is the shooting of the hounds and horses.

Not that she believes hunting will be banned. In Scotland several members of the rural development committee have complained that Lord Watson’s bill is unworkable. In England, there is talk of a compromise after the general election. To concentrate the legislators’ minds, the Countryside Alliance will march on Westminster next month. Her phone rings constantly with people wanting to join the protest.

The horses attended to, we move into the house. The walls are covered with photographs of Snippet competing on horseback, sleeping dogs huddle against the Aga. A collection of riding crops hangs in the loo along with her red hunting jacket.

It may be that the traditional costume has to go, she says thoughtfully. The red coat makes the hunt officials visible to the field, the white stock doubles as a bandage when horse or rider is injured, they’re warm and practical, but they carry certain connotations. Their loss is a small price to pay if hunting is to continue. Fox-hunting is seen as a toffs’ sport: hostility to the unspeakable looms much larger than concern for the uneatable. “You see the most ghastly things on television, the most awful violence, and then one little animal gets killed… there’s an awful lot of hypocrisy. I think it’s as Mr Prescott says: ‘those bastards in their red coats’.”

The disinterested observer – if such a thing exists in the polarised debate over fox-hunting – will notice a curious similarity between the pros and the antis. Each believes the other is obsessed with class, each thinks the other is disingenuous about their motives, each sees the other as an oppressor.

But in one crucial area they diverge: while the anti-hunt lobby preaches civilisation – that city dweller’s ideal – the fox-hunters lay claim to the integrity of Nature. Strip away the layers and even the fox becomes irrelevant. What we have here is a fundamental disagreement about what it means to be human.

Half-way through the afternoon Snippet mentions the right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton. Wonderful man. She has met him out hunting with the Beaufort. He’s written a book, Animal Rights and Wrongs. Terribly good. She bought a batch of ten to hand out to her friends. Have I read it? As it happens I have. Scruton believes that hunting stirs up “evolutionary sediment”, bringing out the hunter-gatherer in men. Of course, Snippet is female, along with some 60 per cent of the Buccleuch Hunt, but she’s prepared to overlook this bio-determinist wrinkle. He’s married now, she says: that should straighten out his ideas.

In essence Scruton’s theory is this. We no longer need to hunt to eat, but the desire for guiltless killing endures. Hunting is a homecoming to our natural state – or as close to it as we can hope to get. Identifying with the pleasure of horse and hounds, we feel our kindred nature with the animals. Consciousness takes a back seat to instinct, and the guilt of consciousness, by-product of the ceaseless judging of ourselves and others, is forgotten. In the co-operative enterprise of the hunt, the individual rejoins the tribe. Likewise, the fox becomes the sacrificial representative of a sacred species. According to Scruton, the rider who praises Charlie’s cunning is engaging in the atavistic practice of totemism.

Surely Snippet and her chums don’t buy this primitivist stuff?

“I think you do. The whole thing flows. It feels a very natural thing to do. If you’re lucky enough to see a fox hunting a rabbit, or you watch these nature programmes which people are addicted to and you watch the lion hunting, it’s the same feeling – but you happen to be taking part in it.”

You get foxy people, she says: people who have a feel for the way a fox is going to go. There are natural huntsmen too, a golden thread links them to their hounds. “I love watching a pack, it’s like a tide, a wave, like water flowing down a hill. And then off they go, heads down, and the sound of a pack of hounds in full cry – it’s just thrilling. You’re jumping big fences and galloping down steep hills, slightly frightened.

“The horses love it. They’re a herd animal: they like galloping along in a herd. As soon as the hounds speak they stand, ears pricked, waiting. If you went into that yard and gave a holler or tootled on a horn every horse would start to shake with the excitement and the buzz of it. Nowadays when everything is so manicured and squeaky clean, it’s lovely to be able to do something which is completely unexpected.”

I have to admit it sounds like fun. But like something more serious too: culture, ideology, ritual. Something much more complex than Royal Ascot over rough country, or bloodlust in natty threads.

By the way, they finally caught a fox the day I followed the hunt. Being a townie, I was sorry. But I wouldn’t want my sorrow to be given the force of law.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

City Hot Shots – Glasgow, the curry capital of Europe

January 24, 1993

When the curry merchants of Glasgow throw a party, they like to do it in style: a spot of ”cuisine Indienne” in the Creme de la Creme, where the wallpaper’s hot from Florida, and the chairs made in Milan. Good food, good company, but a nasty aftertaste. When the guests finally spill on to the pavement and into the early hours of 1993, two cars have been vandalised: a bronze Porsche and a silver Mercedes.

Nothing aggrieves like success.

Count up the Indian restaurants in and around Glasgow. 150? 250? 350? No one knows for sure. Too many for the dwindling pack of diners, anyway. Places boom, others go bust, reputations are made and lost, but three seats on the top table are always reserved.

There’s Bhopinder Purewal, the mogul with the Merc who brought curry to the stockbroker belt and turned a fleapit cinema into Europe’s biggest Indian restaurant; Charan Gill, the Porsche-driving Madonna of niche marketing, who runs a chain of eating houses and a frozen food wholesalers supplying most of the competition; and Balbir Singh Sumal, the man who built an empire and then turned his back on it, the millionaire whose car they didn’t scratch.

Between them, these three have had an extraordinary influence over eating out in the curry capital of Europe. They were born in the Punjab but they speak in the wide accents of the west of Scotland. They grew up on the same rain-swept streets, they’re friends, and rivals. But is Glasgow big enough for the three of them?

You don’t have to pick up a spoon to make a stir in the Indian restaurant trade. The new spreads like wildfire, menus walk off the tables, specialities of the house pop up all over town. Only in the rag trade are innovators ripped off so systematically. A true original can change the face of the business overnight.

Big Bho Purewal, six feet four inches and 25 stones, has just had 60 menus reprinted. The usual suspects: he claims 99% of the opposition popped in for a meal during his first six months. More than £1m went into Creme de la Creme, and it shows. Up on the wall there’s a couple of specially commissioned sculptures by George Wyllie. Nip into the Ladies, and treat yourself to a wash from the 18 carat gold-plated taps. Miles Davis plays a mellow, muted solo. This is Glasgow as envisaged by the hype-masters of 1990: urbane, cosmopolitan, a place to be seen. At nine o’clock on a Saturday night there’ll be 350 seated inside and a queue snaking out to the pavement.

The food doesn’t arrive in a balancing act along a ghee-stained arm; it’s served from trays perched on dinky little folding tables. Now and again customers phone in to check what they should wear. It gives Bho a kick, bringing a wee bit of glamour to tatty old Argyle Street. Ten, 15 years ago, anyone with four walls and a jar of Sharwoods sauce was calling themselves an Indian restaurant. They can’t do that anymore, expectations are higher; and Big Bho has done more than anyone to hit sales of flock wallpaper.

His rivals took one look at the hardwood floors in Cafe India and asked when the carpets were coming, but within 12 months of opening it was Restaurant of the Year. Everyone went. The cultural capitalists rubbed shoulders with No Mean City, Arthur ”Fat Boy” Thompson ate the last supper there before being gunned down in Riddrie. Rumour has it that when Bho sold, the price was over a million.

The formula is simple enough. Buy an unpromising site cheap, open a classy restaurant which does phenomenally well against all expectations, sell it at peak for a huge profit, then start all over again. Usually, the restaurant he sells does rather less well under its new owner, while Bho moves on to launch the next in-place.

Everyone has a theory about how he does it, some of them downright Machiavellian. Maybe he’s just worked out that fashionable restaurants have a limited life: the more intensely in vogue a place is, the more certain to go out of style. Not that you’d expect him to admit it, any more than he’s about to acknowledge the possibility of selling the Creme. What could be bigger than this? Kelvinhall? He laughs. He’s 43 now. As you get older, nice business, nice house, nice family, you grow content. And if someone opened a bigger restaurant? He cocks an eyebrow. ”I’m not that old.”

They’re all desperate to discover his turnover; speculating on rival sales is the number one pastime in the Indian restaurant community. ”Not espionage as such, just curiosity value.” The staff spread rumours out of devilment, making out he’s doing £50,000 a week. Then come the sweaty-palmed calls from other traders: ”Bho, is that right?”

Make no mistake about this. Competition is fierce. One man’s meat is another man’s bankruptcy. ”It really is a cut-throat business,” an insider warns. ”They like to talk and get ideas from each other, but they’re always holding back. Privately I don’t think they like each other that much, although they may kid on.”

No one admits to hostility, but everybody can read the coded digs and smiling put-downs. Creating a restaurant bolsters Bho’s sense of identity. ”Everything I want to be or do, I want to be the best.” What motivates the opposition he can’t say. ”If you’re building up a chain of things that may be greed…” His gourd-shaped face splits open in a teasing smile. ”Or maybe not.”

Glasgow’s a small town when you’re as big as Bho and Charan. Their paths cross all the time. Their restaurants are only half a mile apart, they’re competing for the same clientele, Bho buys his chickens from Charan’s frozen food company, their wives socialise together. Are they friends? The big man grins and shapes two little patties of air between his hands. ”There’s business,” he says. ”And there’s friendship.”

Few terms in the English language are more misleading than the word ”businesslike”. Let no one tell you business is an impersonal, dispassionate affair; money is the least of what’s at stake. Boil the curry game down to basics and what are they saying? Love me, love my restaurant. It’s about as personal as you can get.

Surrounded by dishevelled workmen ankle-deep in sawdust drifts, calmly assessing the stripped-down, ripped-out chaos destined to become Murphy’s Pizza Bar, Charan Gill is the eye of the storm. Half an inch over six feet tall, hair shining black and blue, white shirt, grey herringbone suit just the safe side of flash, gold bracelet tipping the balance. Anyone else and you’d put this tableau of elegant command down to happenstance. With Charan, you know it’s a set-up.

He’s never been to college but he’d have no trouble gaining his Masters in manipulation studies. The restaurants punt an endless round of special promotions: two for the price of one, vouchers, family nights, 12 months’ free meals for a £75 membership fee (mind you check out the small print). He spends £25,000 a year on advertising, and gets a lot of the publicity that money can’t buy. It takes a certain style to name a pub Murphy’s Pakora Bar.

His advertising trademark is the terrible pun. ”The story of Poppa Dom.” ”Tikka look at us now.” ”some you win, some you vindaloos.” The Ashoka chain publishes a newspaper called the Delhi Record. His restaurants are ”patronised by regulars in the true sense of the word”. You can forgive one of two of the Asian community for wondering which word.

Not everyone likes his approach to marketing, the ‘it ain’t half hot mum’ stereotypes, those jokes about doggie bags no longer having doggies in them. He’s been accused of setting the trade’s image back 10 years.

The point is, it works. Unravel the intricate network of shares and partnerships around Harlequin Leisure and you find Charan Gill at its centre. Seven restaurants, two pubs, 150 staff, and a nationwide frozen food supply business with a turnover of £4.5m. It’s like an addiction, he shrugs, expanding; he wakes in the small hours with the pressure of it, but he can’t help himself.

When people in the restaurant game talk about Charan they’ll describe him as a businessman. Not a class act like Bho, not a culinary innovator like Balbir, but a man who runs a tight, unsentimental operation, a man who sells a million curries a year. ”Charan comes across as a big smoothie, but there’s a ruthless streak in him,” a former employee explains. ”The way he deals with the staff is great, they’re all scared of him. He’s supplying everyone now. If someone’s having a curry, even if it’s not his restaurant, he’s making something out of it.”

Charan Gill came to Glasgow from the Indian Punjab at the age of nine. They put him in Primary One. The six year olds used to laugh at their superannuated classmate. No one laughs now. Not so long ago he bumped into his old teacher, the one who taught him to count. He smiles in the sidelong manner of those recalling infant cuteness. He has a webbed toe, you see. She’d chant ‘Ten fingers. Ten toes’, he’d demur. ‘No: 10 fingers, nine toes.’ ”That’s why I can only count up to 19.”

Four years ago building repairs left the Ashoka West End shrouded in scaffolding. He went into the pub across the road and found a group of men in conversation with the landlord. No question who they were. ”You know the restaurateurs, they wear the white shirts and dark suits; it’s like a mafia.” They were out to turn the pub into a curry house, and there was a good chance they’d put him out of business.

”I had a few pints. I was getting angrier. I went away across the road, came back and said ‘how much are these guys going to pay you? I’ll pay you the same if you do the deal with me.’ We shook hands, I went away and said ‘fuck, where am I going to get the money from?”’ Next port of call, the bank manager. ”He said, ‘how much is it?’ I said ‘£180,000’. ‘How much do you need?’ ‘£180,000’.” He laughs. ”And I got it.”

There’s no shortage of people ready to explain away Charan Gill’s success: he won a mint on the pools, he got lucky on a land deal, he owes everything to Balbir. There’s a grain of truth in most of the stories, but also a pinch of jealousy.

Easy to see how he might get up contemporaries’ noses. He’s 38. Too much too young. Then there’s the designer-clad preening and the matinee idol looks, that air of being filmed by an invisible camera. It’s clear which part he’s playing but he doesn’t quite fit the role.

Even friends mention the schizoid streak: chummy one minute, cold the next. He knows it. He wasn’t born to be a boss, it doesn’t always come naturally. Twenty years ago he was in the shipyards. It’s only a decade since he was feeding the family on a part-time barman’s wage. The only time he forgets the restaurants and can really relax is when he gets up on stage to sing.

Room 164 is not large by hotel standards. The usual furnishings: twin beds, dressing table, wardrobe, table and chairs. Add eight bhangra musicians and me, and it’s a little on the tight side. The boys of Bombay Talkie are getting ready for the gig, peeling off shirts, dropping their trousers, firing off backchat and mildly hysterical jokes.

It’s Charan’s turn as the target. The way he speaks Punjabi with a Scottish accent. The Delhi Record challenge – find the page without his picture. Changed and ready for the stage, Sanjay lines up beside his co-singer for inspection. ”What do you think? Who’s got more money?”

Today the restaurants aren’t so easily forgotten. At the bar there’s an awkward scene with a rival who’s using the Ashoka name. In the Gents he meets a man who gripes about his ”two for the price of one” offers. Some traders have started buying their meat from a rival supplier in protest.

Up on stage, the band play a driving set of Indian pop. Charan sings, dances and sets hearts a-fluttering at a table of young girls, but he never quite lets go. The invisible camera keeps rolling while Sanjay’s uninhibited puppy-dog act steals the show.

Few places are emptier than an Indian restaurant at 3.30 in the afternoon, but something about the tang of melancholy, all those abandoned tables, suits Balbir Singh Sumal. A sweetly hapless figure with sad eyes and flyaway hair, Balbir is the white Russian of the curry business, a Romanov in exile, even if it is only behind a cage of scaffolding opposite the Odeon cinema.

No account of Charan Gill’s career is complete without reference to Balbir. He hired Charan as a barman, took him back after a three year spell selling life insurance for an arm’s length subsidiary of BCCI and, in 1983, offered him a partnership. Eventually Balbir sold Charan the Ashoka West End, and developed his own trio of restaurants in Elderslie Street, but he continued to run the rest of the Ashoka chain in partnership with Charan and his cousin Gurmail Dhillon. He severed the final links last year.

Balbir and Bho have known each other since childhood, it’s an equable relationship, he’s never seen the big man lose his temper. With Charan it’s different. You can pick up the emotional static all over town. ”Charan is playing catch-up with Balbir,” one restaurateur explains. ”He was a nothing before Balbir, he can never forget him. He’s his best friend and yet there’s very, very competitive rivalry between the two.”

A January hailstorm is pinging off the scaffolding poles, but inside the Regent Ashoka the walls are bathed in an eastern sunset. Ravi Shankar plays on unheeded, mournful cadences mingling with the faint whiff of incense in the air. There’s something strange about this place, something you won’t encounter at Bho’s or Charan’s… it feels like India. Upmarket Indian restaurants just don’t do this, unless they’re conjuring heritage fantasies of the Raj. Even the staff complain about the sitar tapes, accusing him of sending diners to sleep. ”I say, so what?”

So Balbir breaks the rules, but then, he wrote them in the first place.

Bho’s forte is chic places with clever waiters. Charan’s happy being the boss and seeing himself in the papers. But Balbir is a food man. He wrote the menu. Not just his own, he claims, but most of Bho’s and Charan’s as well. When the worst comes to the worst he’ll go into the kitchen and cook.

At the heart of Glasgow’s thriving Indian restaurant sector is a rich irony. Against all the odds, the pioneers of Gibson Street, the famous Vindaloo Valley, created a market for brutally flavoured, intestinally hazardous, wildly inauthentic Indian food. Their heirs have spent the succeeding 30 years trying to refine Glaswegian palettes.

Balbir would get complaints when he cooked dishes properly. He had to work by stealth, tempting friends with complimentary side dishes, hoping they’d order them independently next time. Even now, the Regent Sahib menu has its vintage section: vindaloo, lamb madras, chicken bhuna. ”I don’t recommend them,” he murmurs.

These things don’t exist in India outside the tourist hotels. Even the newer, more subtle dishes are a far cry from traditional Indian cuisine. Try ordering Chasni on your next trip to the Punjab and see how far you get. You find it everywhere in Glasgow, but then it was created here. Balbir himself devised four types of korma now served across the city. Apparently Bho takes credit for one of them.

Charan claims to have brought balti dishes to Glasgow, he grumbles: total nonsense. Same with dosas: he was doing them long before the Ashoka dosa house opened last year. What’s more, he knows how to serve them properly.

When the Elderslie Street Ashoka was the busiest Indian restaurant in Glasgow, no one was bigger than Balbir Singh Sumal. He moved into a baronial mansion on a 60-acre estate. He bought the Rolls-Royce just to get it out of his system. Now he’s embarrassed to be seen in it, feels happier in the van. He was never as rich as people thought, he insists. They made up stories. Then, when his luck changed, they exercised their inventive powers the other way.

Hard to pinpoint exactly when things started turning sour for Balbir. He’d lost heart even before the run-in with the Inland Revenue. By the mid-1980s, he wanted out. ”I found my English was deteriorating, I wasn’t developing personally. All I was doing was ‘enjoy your meal?’ All I learned was maybe to cook a bit better and the secrets of wine. I was driving bigger cars, living in a bigger house, but it didn’t please me as much.”

He always made an unlikely tycoon. Those rumpled £50 suits, the cuffs skimming his knuckles; the pot-pourri of interests. His conversation soon leaves the restaurant, meandering from Indian politics through music to the advantages of hair transplants. Charan spends a fortune on his abundant barnet. He’s not saying he’s vain. ”He just uses his looks to propagate his business.”

Rivals class Balbir’s intellectual pretensions with the music studio in his home: one of the luxuries money can buy. He’s not hungry any more. Somewhere along the way he seems to have lost his taste for the struggle.

Two years ago he decided to shed his various holdings and concentrate on a single place of his own. He was going to open a pakora house, but Charan beat him to it. He was going to go art deco, then Bho opened Creme de la Creme. He found the perfect site, opposite the multiscreen cinema, but paid dearly for it. Almost £1.5m altogether, he says. Ten days before his opening date, the building above caught fire. They finally opened last summer, three months late. On the busiest day of the Christmas rush the dumb waiter broke down; stuck in the shaft was the order for a party of 50. All in all, 1992 wasn’t a good year.

Not so long ago, Charan said to him: ”You’re no longer Mr Ashoka.” He supposes that’s right. There’s a new generation of customers out there. He’s only known to the over-forties. He has to admit he gets upset with his former partner. Until 1991 he was the one taking decisions, he opened all but one of the Ashokas, but who remembers that now?

You can’t blame me for asking, it’s the obvious question. Does he like Charan? The sad eyes widen in genuine surprise. ”Oh, he’s my best friend.”

Of course, there’s friendship. And there’s business.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Run of the mill – Paisley’s mill lasses

March 18, 2000

There is a photograph in the Paisley museum archives. It’s a grainy image of a crowd on a sunny day, long skirts and hats and leg o’mutton sleeves, with an eye-catching flurry of movement in the foreground: three women, arms linked in the classic mill-girl way. They appear to be dancing.

It was late September 1907 and the turning shop boys in the Anchor thread mills went on strike. Five thousand Anchor girls picketed the Ferguslie Mills to bring them out in sympathy. Hollering and catcalling, they tried to rush the gates. The foremen turned fire hoses on them to keep them out. Thwarted, the women broke windows. They fought the police, hurling peasemeal at Captain Duncan and jabbing at his men with hatpins. J&P Coats had to suspend production. For a couple of days 12,000 workers were idle.

This was only one episode in 17 days of mayhem. The mill girls paraded through the town behind a piper. They sang in the streets, honking the horns of parked cars. They hijacked a piano organ, commandeered a tramcar, surrounded a fish barrow and threw herring at the luckless vendor. The newspapers called it “wild larking”, but it was more than random high spirits. There was a manager called Turnbull; an Englishman, as many mill managers were. We can only speculate about the way he treated his workforce. Thousands of mocking girls followed him home from work. Another day they stole his doormat. They made an effigy of him and carried it to Paisley Cross where, dancing and yelling, they set it on fire. In the end, they ran him out of town.

How quickly industrialisation has become alien to us. For over 100 years Paisley’s most distinctive sight, on the sounding of the mill hooter, was thousands of women spilling on to the streets. Now the Paisley mills are demolished, or derelict. But the past is still with us: dispersed in high-rise blocks and sheltered housing, not always chewing with their own teeth, but still statistically significant in the local population. The mill-lassies live on, Paisley’s last link with an extraordinary era.

Paisley’s cotton sewing thread was developed in the early 19th century and rapidly became a world-beating product. In 1896 the local thread dynasties, Coats and Clark, merged to become the fifth biggest company in the world. By 1913 J&P Coats had mills in 23 countries across the globe, from Canada to Manchuria. Over the next 70 years another 23 were added to the list, but the twin hearts of this empire remained the Anchor and Ferguslie Mills in Paisley.

Paisley was virtually a company town. The mill dominated every aspect of its workers’ lives. The mill grandees provided churches, parks, the town hall, observatory, museum and public library. Water for the swimming baths was heated in the Coats dyeworks. The mills held dances and ran holiday excursions and trips to the theatre. Mill-workers played on company tennis courts, bowling greens, and football and cricket pitches. The mills ran Paisley, and women worked the mills.

Ask anyone in Paisley about the mill-lassies and you’ll get a reaction. They’re a powerful symbol. The trouble is, no one can agree just what they represent. To the women who worked in shops and offices for a fraction of what the mills paid, they were “mill-dumpers”: tough, gallus and none too bright. To many Paisley buddies they are emblems of a golden age when the town was one big happy family. Some see them as stooges of Edwardian-style capitalism. Others claim them as pre-feminist heroines, defying their industrial masters with the subversion of mockery.

Perhaps we should ask the women themselves.

They called the girls in the twining department “toe typists”. They worked in their bare feet, controlling the speed of the spindle with their big toes. Jessie Lochrie slips off one dainty shoe. “I’ve only got four toes on each foot now.”

It’s not difficult to imagine Jessie as a mill-lassie. Even at 83 there’s a touch of the girl about her, despite the false teeth and whistling hearing aid. She’s still beautifully turned-out, still nimble enough to mimic the one-legged shimmy that the doffers used to do, still up for a laugh. On her last trip to Blackpool she went swimming and took a slide down the 127 ft flume. But the twinkle fades from her eye when she talks about the mills.

It was hard hard work: confined between the long machines, in stifling heat and deafening noise, among the rats. When you lifted down the big cheeses of unbleached cotton, beetles ran up your arm. The machinery was driven by belts which broke, hitting the worker’s arm or shoulder, and were stapled together, and broke again. “I always swore if I ever had a daughter, no way would she work in the mill.”

Though she was eager enough to get the job when she started. The mills were the best payers in town, and getting hired was not easy. You needed a contact to recommend you. Most mill-lassies had several relatives in the mills. Jessie – McMenemie as she was then – was no exception. She remembers the day she joined a crowd of girls at the Ferguslie gatehouse.

Her mother lifted her up so she could be seen above the sea of heads. The man in charge remarked “you’re too wee” (at 14 she was a fraction over 5 ft), to which her mother retorted “You’re no very big yourself.” The backchat paid off. Jessie was taken to a nurse who checked her hair for lice, and inspected her ears, eyes, hands, and knickers. The year was 1931, her starting wage was a pound and tuppence.

The mill-girl began her working life bound by a chain of obligation: to step out of line was to bring shame on the person who had spoken for her. In every flat (mill-speak for floor) the workers were monitored by a mistress, who reported to a foreman, who was controlled by a manager, sometimes a sub-manager too. Every one of them expected extreme deference. The scope for petty tyranny was limitless. Seventy years on, Jessie still feels bitter about her forewoman in the learners’ flat.

There was one place the mill-girl could escape this elaborate system of control. They called it “the London”. It was where they went for a gossip, or a laugh, or a haircut, or to get their ears pierced. Some girls read tea leaves. Six of them would crowd into the one stall: three sitting on the toilet rim, another two with their feet against the wall, so only one pair of legs was visible under the door. Jessie was at a pensioners’ club last year when a voice cried out “Jessie McMenemie! You set my hair out of the toilet pan!” It’s true. There were no washbasins. Marcel waves were all the fashion, but you had to wet the hair, which was a dead giveaway. Jessie was given her second suspension – two days. The first time she was kept off three days for plucking a friend’s eyebrows beside the machines. She was afraid to go home and tell her mother.

Despite her suspensions Jessie was moved to a job in the spooling department, where she kept her shoes on. She was lucky. A suspended worker had to live with the consequences: a blotted record, and the possibility of dismissal for a further misdemeanour. If you weren’t liked they could give you a terrible time. “There wasn’t any animosity or antagonism. People were too scared. It was really survival – you held on to the job,” she says. “It’s funny later on when you’re talking about it, but it wasn’t funny when you were there. Life was hard. In all honesty it was slavery.”

Ask Alice Elliott about slavery and she’ll give you a different answer. Mill-girls lived at home until the day they married; their mothers ruled the roost. At the end of every working week Alice handed over her wages and got a shilling back to buy silk stockings. She worked hard for her pay but, after life at home, the mill was a taste of freedom.

She’s 77 now, an advert granny: snowy-haired, cuddly, comfortable as a cottage loaf. At 14 she was a skinny 4 ft 10, and could get in to the pictures half-price. She loved being a mill-girl. Stories and sing-songs and a fly puff in the “London”. Buying tuppenny cakes of chocolate on tick from Annie Hutton, who smuggled them in to the flat in her drawers. Mill trips to the theatre and Blackpool illuminations. Seeing Casablanca with her pals after work. Telling her friend Ella, who was disappointed in love, “never trust a fella, Ella” – a motto that was to be scrawled in dozens of Christmas cards over the years.

Mill life had its own rituals. There was Skittery Winter, where the last girl to arrive on Hogmanay was greeted with a deafening din of spools clattered against the shelves. Or the high jinks the day you left to get married; your workmates made you a funny hat and decorated your coat with crepe paper and ran you down the street, making a racket with saucepan lids. Alice took 20 of her friends for a meal at the ice rink, and on to the Paisley Theatre. The singer sang her favourite tune, When You Were Sweet Sixteen. At the end of the night she jumped over a chanty filled with dolls to make sure she had plenty of babies. The friends she made at the mill have lasted her whole life. “You were always in a crowd,” she says, smiling and wistful. “You really lived then, you really laughed.”

Most mill-lassies were proud of their job. They had to be, to counter the stigma. Many people looked down on the mill-dumpers. In fact, mill-girls came from a variety of backgrounds, some highly reputable, but they worked in a hard industry which was no respecter of persons, and they stuck together. There are countless stories about the mill-workers’ solidarity. The food parcels put together for women whose men weren’t working. The slow workers who had their output boosted by their pals. The mothers who had to marry their daughters on the cheap and in a hurry, who went home with the promise of a white dress, a veil and a frock for the bridesmaid.

The mill bosses played a part in this supportive culture. The Coats family were philanthropists, men of Christian conscience, and their workers had many reasons to be grateful. Though mill-girls were forced to leave work on marriage until the second world war, unmarried mothers were allowed to stay on. The 1914-18 war left a whole generation of women widowed, or condemned to spinsterhood with families to support. The mills offered these women a job and a pension and, in some cases, a chance to see the world, training foreign workforces in the Coats’ empire.

The mills had their own dentists, chiropodists, doctors and nurses. Tubercular workers were treated in the mills’ sanatorium. Those recovering from illness could stay in the mill’s convalescent home. Single girls without dependants lived in a mill hostel. There was a company-run friendly benefit society which covered workers for sickness and death. As Bill Knox, senior lecturer in Scottish history at St Andrews University, has pointed out, J&P Coats was a classic example of industrial paternalism.

Of course one woman’s paternalism is another’s social control. Christian conscience went hand-in-hand with the profit motive. The mills hired women because they were cheap labour and reckoned to be more tractable than men. The various company benefits removed one of the main incentives to union membership. There were no strikes between the wars, and only a handful over the next half-century. The wild rebellious spirit of 1907 seemed to have vanished.

But not quite without trace.

According to the Glasgow University historian Eleanor Gordon, who wrote a book about Scottish women workers before 1914, women went on strike for the same reasons as men, but the style of protest was different: women’s strikes were distinguished by boisterousness and the use of humiliation and ridicule. Striking petered out in the Paisley mills, but mischief and mockery lived on. A streak of gallusness ran through the mill-lassie like lettering through rock.

June Quail (“like the bird only bigger”) worked in the Anchor Mills from 1952 to1955. She too handed her wages over to her mother. She got half-a-crown pocket money, which she paid in to various menodges so she could afford the latest fashions. “You had the waspy belt and the black raincoat with the gold inside. You tied it tight round the waist and turned up the collar and you walked like that with your shoulders,” she mimics the provocative swagger Diana Dors perfected in her bad-girl B-movies, “because you were a mill-worker.”

You were never lonely as a mill-girl, she says. “If you were on your own and your pal didn’t turn up you could go to any of the dance halls and you’d find somebody that you could pal-up with. You could go along the picture queue and see somebody you knew and say ‘I’m here myself’ and they’d say ‘here: come in with us’.” She has never met a more close-knit group, and there were thousands of them.

Even working in different mills you had things in common. You sang whatever was number one in the Luxembourg charts over the noise of the machines. You learned to lip-read, communicating with exaggerated silent speech and a tic-tac code of gestures. You wore your hair in curlers under a turban so you could go straight to the dancing after work. You skailed the gates at the end of the day, an army of arm-linked women, “and woe betide anybody who was in the road.” You walked the Glasgow Road on a Sunday, dressed-up in your hat and gloves, looking for talent. You never said “hello”: there was a mill call, two high-pitched playful notes: “A-ah”.

June fits the mill-girl mythology perfectly: a big, bold woman with a quick tongue, a wonderfully raucous laugh and a fund of cheeky, brutal, hilarious stories. The one about pushing Mary Bundles into a packing case and sending her down in the lift. That time in the toilets when the girl with the long needle missed her friend’s earlobe and jabbed a bystander in the neck, puncturing her carotid artery. The day she caught two of the foreman’s fingers in the machine, and he was bandaged into a V-sign; which was all the excuse his workforce needed to return the salute. She was 15 when she started in the mills, 18 when she left to get married. She’s 63 now, and she remembers it like yesterday. “I shoved a lifetime into those three years. I loved it.”

There was this big handsome hunk just back from his National Service. One of the girls pierced two of her fingers with steel wires from the machine and asked him to remove them while she continued working. (Piece-workers did not stop their machines lightly.) When he saw her injuries he fainted. Muttering “bugger it, I’ll do it myself,” she wrapped a couple of lengths of thread round the wounds to staunch the bleeding and carried on with her work. She didn’t have time to tell anyone that he was out cold on the floor. After that, whenever they wanted Willie it was “send for the strong man.”

A good deal of sexual teasing went on. They couldn’t get back at their own man so they’d get back at those in the mill. But it was only fun. “They’d shout things at them to see if they could blush, but if anybody had said it to them they would have died. ‘Did you get it last night, son?’ If he went ‘aye’, it was ‘that’s it, we’ll no’ bother with him’.”

The paradox of the mill-lassie is that she was mouthy and modest, crude and careful, subversive and under the thumb. Gallus – but not too gallus. June’s first day at work, the foreman told her to go and ask for two dozen headless brushes and 24 leadless pencils. She refused. “He said ‘you’d better, because if you don’t I’ll give you a line saying she’s too smart for her own good’.”

Two years later she fell foul of the time-and-motion man. (“You know how there’s always wee men wanting to be big…?”) He asked her to work into her tea break, which she did, but he expected her to start again at the same time as everybody else. She insisted she was due five minutes extra. The foreman was called, then the sub-manager, then the manager. “I said ‘my dad said right’s right and wrong’s wrong, and that’s wrong’.” So they sent to Ferguslie Mills for her father, who made her apologise. She was suspended for three days.

Over 40 years on, with the wee nyaff long dead, she’s still angry. “That wee man destroyed something in me. The Paisley people were rebels – well, I am to an extent, but that guy killed that fire in me. After that I just kowtowed.”

So the mill-lassies kowtowed, and kept their coded rebellions to teasing and the toilet. In the end they lost their jobs anyway. In 1949 there were 10,500 mill-workers in Paisley. By 1991, after four rollercoaster decades of expansion, diversification, merger, closures and three-day-weeks, the Paisley mills employed just 340. On Friday April 2 1993 the last mill-girl clocked off for the last time.

The Ferguslie Mills are gone now. More of the Anchor complex remains. Safeway is talking about converting the Finishing Mill into flats and building a supermarket next door. June Quail is one of a group of former mill-workers and others campaigning for a lasting memorial to the days when Paisley headed a manufacturing empire which spanned five continents. The group have premises, and boxes and boxes of memorabilia, and they vow that sometime this year the Paisley Thread Mill Museum will open to the public. But in the meantime the most vivid reminders of that era are still living – and laughing – among us.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Brothel creeping – life in a Glasgow sauna

October 24, 1993

Caroline dresses like a hooker. Fishnets, stilettos, low-cut leotard, leather waspie with detachable handcuffs, black widow eyelashes and several cwt of slap. But Caroline is also known as Neil, and follows quite another calling. ”Oooh,” somebody squeals, spotting him. ”It’s the electrician.”

Meanwhile, the girls, the real girls, prefer softer versions of feminine allure: baby-doll nightwear, satin camiknickers, sheer black stockings, skin-tight skirts and gaping blouses, even the velvet-ruffled saloon-gal look. Oh yes, and then there’s me: trousers and jumper. Well, what would you wear to a brothel?

Easy if you’re a man. Towels are the style, greyish from too many tangles with the spin cycle, tied unselfconsciously around milk-white midriffs curdling into middle age. The great thing about towels is their anonymity: without clothes these guys could be anything, tinker, tailor, dustman, bank manager. Perhaps that’s why so many punters hold on to their mobile phones.

It’s midnight in the heart of Glasgow office-land, a bargain basement blend of gentlemen’s club and bachelor pad. Remember Roger Moore in The Persuaders and you’re getting the flavour. Casket-joinery panelled walls, butch shades of burgundy and green baize, pictures you just know were bought for their frames, and a shadowy feel despite the 100 watt lighting, a pervasive atmosphere of fuzziness that the Parkhead floodlights couldn’t dispel.

Maybe it’s the cigarette smoke, a solid fug overlaid with the sweetness of too many perfumes too liberally applied, the taped music that nobody heeds, the blurred precarious bonhomie of drink. Maybe it’s just the anaesthetising effect of all that anonymity.

Let’s get one thing straight right now: no names. Everyone uses false ones anyway. The girls favour the frilly and ultra-feminine, or smirk-raising excursions into Bond-girl exotica. The men prefer a bloke-next-doorish cover, so many Johns, then the dummies pay by credit card. Within these walls, just about everything is called something else: the services on offer, even the place itself. To the law it’s a brothel, Louie says ”massage parlour”, Penelope ”health club”, and Donna calls it a “sauna”. As Elizabeth observes, in a wider context, ”As soon as you walk in that door it’s fantasy-time.”

The first thing that strikes you, after you’ve learned to look the men in towels in the eye (actually, eyes are the safest place to look), is the utter unsexiness of the atmosphere. This is no Bacchanalian rite, no intimidating exhibition of priapism. Brian’s brought his guitar along, for God’s sake, so we can join him in a few Everly Brothers hits. There’s the ever-present threat that somebody’s going to switch on the karaoke machine. It could be a youth club pyjama party.

Here we are, among the exploding Dralon armchairs and plastic plants, the tomato-soup textured carpet, drinking gin and tooth-rotting mixers, singing along with that ballad of a poor boy’s ruin, House of the Rising Sun. Or we would be, if we could agree on the words. By the final verse it’s just Louie, our host, belting out a solo whose chutzpah carries him over the odd bum note.

So mothers tell your children/ not to do what I have done/ spend your lives in sin and misery/ in the House of the Rising Sun.

Sin? Every so often a girl will disappear to the cabins with a punter, but they’re back in the blink of an eye. There’s a certain amount of lubricious backchat (”you dirty bugger”), but when it doesn’t have a Carry On jolliness about it, the innuendo is so obscure that you’re reminded of schoolroom Shakespeare and those sexual puns whose footnotes ran to several pages.

And misery? Not at first glance. The punters seem happy enough, sitting there in their dingy togas, basking in all that attention, complete acceptance with no emotional obligation, intimacy without strings. But relaxation of this order doesn’t just happen. The girls talk to me and to each other animatedly enough, but one eye is always scanning the room. Suddenly, disconcertingly, they’ll assume those Stepford smiles, and you remember: this is business.

About two in the morning, in that No Man’s Land between intoxication and hangover, the dregs of the party are clustered around the reception desk with its timesheets and spare pairs of black stockings, and Penelope takes a punter through to the cabins. The music’s off now and through the smoky silence travels the distinct smack-smack of kisses. We chat desultorily. The girls don’t want me wandering the streets in search of a cab, it’s dangerous out there. Caroline is telling us how he lost a false nail in the neck of an assailant; he considered sticking the head on him. ”But I thought, no, that’s not very ladylike.”

After a time Penelope and her customer reappear, puffy-faced, eyes unfocused, among us but apart, subject to other gravitational forces. And even after all the jokes, after spending the evening among men in towels and women in their underwear, even though nobody’s being coy, there’s still a faint frisson of embarrassment.

Taboo or not taboo, that is the question. The prurient indignation perfected by the News of the World has a dwindling constituency. The SNP, even the Mothers’ Union, considered calling for decriminalisation, but does anyone really want the oldest profession brought into the fold? It’s not so much the fear of deviance, sordid practices, unnatural acts; the resistance is of a different order. Deep down, there remains the disquieting possibility that it’s already too close to home.

Louie was the man who brought the cotton gusset in from Hong Kong. A sales executive with a major public company in those days, but always something of a ringmaster of sleaze, hiring call-girls to celebrate the clinching of a deal. It’s the continental way. There came a time when there were fewer deals to clinch.

It started off as a legitimate massage parlour, he insists. Members only, very swish, a home from home for business people up from London and over from the continent. A lot of Chinese too. That was the late Seventies when there were just two saunas in Glasgow, both sticking to the rules. Then a new place opened and started playing dirty.

During the brief golden age of the Glasgow sex boom there were 20-odd massage parlours around the city. Big money. Bosses driving fancy convertibles. Now half of them have shut up shop and those still hanging on are only there because they don’t know what else to do. Aids and the recession, Louie says. Promiscuity is past, sex is out of fashion. And there are too many girls on street corners doing it for fifteen quid.

You’ll know Louie’s type, they’re a speciality of the West End of Glasgow: no longer young but refusing to grow old, they dress with the jumble-sale abandon of students but their receding hairlines are grey. Like a lot of men who spend time around a lot of women, he’s an unconvincing cock of the walk, slinking off when the girl-talk gets too raucous, a man whose facial expression starts his sentences a couple of seconds before he gets the words out. It’s easy to be lulled by his mildness, but when it matters everybody knows who’s boss.

Listen to Louie and Strathclyde should be subsidising him as a branch of the social services. They get the lonely, the disfigured, amputees, all manner of deserving cases. They save a lot of marriages. If it wasn’t for places like his the punters would be sorted out with their secretaries or going to the dancing and having affairs. At least in the massage parlour they practice safe sex.

”Say a guy’s wife – it’s been known – has been frigid, for whatever reason. Or she went off him. I don’t think it’s fair to say she’s frigid because I’ve screwed lots of frigid wives. They’ve got financial commitments, emotional commitments, does he have no sexual life? Or does he spend a few pounds, strictly business, and nobody’s hurt?”

Louie pays a high price for all this philanthropy. He’s a social outcast. No one asks him to dinner, which is their loss, because he’s good company. He’ll tell you about the guy who likes to sit in the sauna with a bucket on his head, the wives who storm in while their husbands are scrambling over the back wall, the executives who arrived from a football international with the official piper in tow.

Massage parlour bosses are a colourful crew. One hangs his washing in the sauna cabin, another used to set his girls up for the day with a bible reading. Crooks and vagabonds, the lot of ’em. And Louie? ”I’m a vagabond but I’m not a crook.”

Certainly the police seem to be the least of his worries. If customers get over boisterous, as has happened a couple of times, the boys in blue arrive promptly, eject the troublemakers, and say their goodnights. In the early days there were raids, Keystone Cops affairs involving months of surveillance and dozens of men, but in 13 years in the trade Louie has had to pay just one £50 fine for running a disorderly house.

The Inland Revenue are a bigger bogey, but it’s his colleagues in the sex trade he seems to fear most. Once, after he’d refused an invitation to sell up, the police intercepted a posse of shotgun-toting heavies waiting to ambush him. Not that he wants anyone getting the wrong idea. ”There really isn’t organised crime in the saunas,” he insists. ”There are people who slot in the grey areas of life.”

Inevitably, Louie has grey areas of his own, and all the anonymity in the world won’t persuade him to talk about money. The official version is that customers pay an entrance fee for use of the facilities, and anything which transpires in the privacy of the cabin is the subject of a ”tip” to the girl involved. In fact, prices and terminology – the ”hand relief” and ”reverse massage” – are standard throughout Glasgow, starting at £25 and rising through various services to £50 for full intercourse.

Louie has around a dozen girls on the books, an ever-changing register: students who’ve given up their courses because they can’t afford to live, ex-nurses, housewives. The husbands know, though not all of them admit it. Getting staff isn’t a problem; getting staff of the right standard is. It’s not that they’re ugly, it’s their attitude: greedy, lazy, but most of all… he frowns, groping for the phrase… uncaring. The punters don’t want somebody who’ll give them a rough time, they get that in the house. ”They don’t want a substitute wife, they want a caring person.”

The best masseuses tend to be ex-nurses. ”If you get somebody who’s been working in a caring industry and they go into that, they’ve got an aptitude for what they’re doing. A young dolly bird that’s in love with herself, she won’t make a good massoose.”

Everyone has their own threshold of shock. Some find the very notion of prostitution offensive. For others it’s the Oxo-ad normality of the clientele. To me, hiring out the body doesn’t mean selling your soul, but caring: that’s a very different commodity.

What you have to remember, Louie says soothingly, is that it’s entirely different from real sex. But which particular brand of reality does he have in mind?

Party time again, and the usual cross-section of pseudonymous Scottish manhood. Someone’s brought along a box of Black Magic bearing the tell-tale blueish bloom of many months in the window display. Louie’s teasing Donna about being a psychological virgin, Penelope’s refreshing her Estee Lauder lipstick for the third time in five minutes, and the guitarist has decided he loves me. Wants to give me his lucky necklace. Mercifully, he’s too drunk to untie it.

The electrician arrives in his shop window wig and fetishistic clobber to provide the cabaret and persuades Serena to surrender head and hands to a medieval stocks hijacked from some community centre production of Robin Hood. He opens with a joke so lame that the audience don’t even groan, then, huffily, starts switching his assistant with slow, careful taps from a riding crop. This is not Serena’s idea of a good time. Nor, it appears, anyone else’s. One by one the men in towels drift away. Eventually the dominatrix tires of the pantomime ows and ouches of his victim. They change places and she returns the punishment, asking anxiously after each tentative blow ”Is that too sore?”

Ex-nurse, you see.

It’s daytime, but how are you supposed to tell? The windows have been painted out and covered with acres of beige gauzy drapes. It’s like finding yourself on the set of an am-dram Terence Rattigan, or perhaps, under the circumstances, Waiting for Godot. Sometimes they sit around for hours before a punter darkens the door. Since there’s nobody on the premises, we might as well take a look around.

Louie’s place is as upmarket as a Glasgow brothel gets. You should see some of the others, Donna assures me. There are saunas and showers and lounges and a billiard room with a girl huddled over the electric radiator trying to put a flush on her hypothermic pallor. The cabins are surprisingly homey, with dressing tables and armchairs and heart-shaped satin cushions ranged around the black leatherette massage couch. Windows are swathed in the inevitable Havisham net.

Twice a week you’ll find Elizabeth here, Elizabeth Collins they call her, doyenne of shoulder pads and false nails, a flirty mother hen with a taste for sequin and velvet and an inexhaustible line in chat. The comedy works well with her cosmetics-counter glamour. To see her swishing around in an off-the-shoulder cocktail gown, displaying a sizeable margin of bra, is to witness a clever, even a class act. But drop by in the daytime and catch her in her masseuse’s white overall, notice the straying lipstick line and that tender purple welt on her heel from decades of too-tight stilettos, and you realise there’s another Elizabeth.

Penelope’s her pal, younger, plumper, a bit of a Liz Taylor. They’re enjoying this: who would Donna be? Let’s see. One of Hitchcock’s ice blondes, the untouchable receptionist with her sidelong looks and ”you must be joking” manner.

And what do they really look like? The woman in the next seat on the bus. With extra lipstick. These aren’t your wind-chapped junkies out on street corners. They occupy what Louie might call a grey area, mid-way between vice girl and nice girl.

”Why do you think we wear a lot of lipstick?” Elizabeth asks out of the blue.

Because it’s sexy? Vampish? Appealing to unsubtle tastes?

None of the above. ”So we don’t get kissed.”

They call them working girls, but they’re ”on the game”. How’s that for mixed messages? In theory it should be quite straightforward, a simple physiological transaction, but since when was sex a simple anything? Punters fall into two categories: nice guys and perverts. Perverts are easier: they don’t want kisses, they don’t want it personal, and they don’t beat about the bush. Most, however, are just your average Joes, and that’s where the demarcations start to blur. Punters or personal: they’re all men.

Penelope was married for nine years. ”It’s like I was away,” she says wonderingly. ”I had nothing but the house and the kids, it’s like I was locked up.” Whatever you think of her current lifestyle, it offers certain advantages.

After her divorce she served behind a bar, 50 hours a week for eighty quid. Then last year a friend who worked asked her if she’d be interested in giving it a try. Just came out with it. That was what intrigued her. How did she know she wouldn’t freak out? Funnily enough her mum, a strict Catholic, was similarly unfazed.

She can tell what the punters are after within five minutes: talk, a bit of loving, whatever. One of her regulars is like a 14-year-old; likes to chase her and get kissed on the neck. Above all, the job is to make them feel special. One way traffic: they don’t want to know that you’ve got a life or feelings.

And then once in a while it’s genuinely pleasurable, usually with a guy she wouldn’t look twice at. It doesn’t happen often. Nine and a half times out of ten the girl is in control, one step ahead, planning the next move. So who’s using, and who’s being used? It’s not a question she recognises. The deal is to their mutual advantage at the time.

And yet. They say a year of prostitution ages you ten years. Mentally, that is. For the first six, eight months she thought she was strong enough. ”I used to keep it separate in my own mind, me and Penelope were totally different, and now I don’t know where one starts and one ends. People say ‘bubbly personality’, but some days you’re like a zombie, you’re like a clone.”

She doesn’t trust anybody any more, certainly not guys, but it’s hard for her to say whether that’s entirely due to the job. A steady relationship is out of the question. She wouldn’t like it if the man knew, but she wouldn’t like to lie to him either, it’s bad enough keeping it from the kids. Of course men ask her out. She turns them down. ”You think, maybe they think they’re going to get this sexpot for a girlfriend.”

Behind her professional permissiveness, Penelope remains the good Catholic girl she was brought up to be, the one who married the second man she ever slept with. The crucifix nestling in her cleavage isn’t just for show. At Louie’s she always waits until she’s picked, never approaches the punters herself. If she ever got involved with somebody she’d be shocked to find them wanting the sort of things she does at work. But then, the man who fell for her would have a hell of a hard time.

”The guy who started with me, he’d need a hammer and chisel.” She smiles, heartrendingly. ”I’m sure he’d be delightfully surprised, but it’d be awfully hard getting there.”

Too much of this sounds too familiar. They could be any group of women bemoaning the selfishness of men. Elizabeth remembering how she rang a punter who’d cried on her shoulder often enough, a guy she thought was a friend, only to be told ”Phone me back when you’re better.” Donna’s never touched a customer in her life, but even she’s convinced that, for men, women are second class citizens.

Nobody forced Elizabeth into this job, it just seemed the best of the available options. She’s done bar work but it’s all low-paid, live-in or cash-in-hand. She worked her way up to manageress at one hotel but couldn’t take the boss’s sexual harassment and he refused her a reference when she quit.

Social security’s no answer. By the time the bills are paid she has £2.50 left to live on. Do they expect her to sit in the house with the gas off? When she goes to sign on she knows the punter on the counter from Louie’s. At her Restart interview the guy behind the desk starts chatting her up. Men don’t pay the real price of prostitution, she points out; they don’t get done, not even embarrassed sometimes. When her case came to court after a luckless spot of moonlighting last year – guess what? – the top names had all vanished from the witness list.

Her attitude to the job has its own logic. Out on a date she likes the romantic side of it; in there, it’s just work. When a punter walks out without paying, as a doctor did last week, wisecracking ”I thought you liked me”, that’s degrading. What must he think of her if he can do that?

Men are weird, she muses. ”They actually think we love it in there. We kid on, but all the same, how can they think we’re not just doing it for the money?”

Men. They like the sussies and the bright red nails, but start going out with them and suddenly they want you to dress like their wives. Hers likes her depressed so she mopes obligingly when he telephones, then hangs up and becomes the party girl again.

They met at Louie’s. He’d been using saunas for 10 years, then fell in love with her. Now he wants her to leave, says she’s too good for that. And she is, but at the same time, she’s no different from the rest. He’ll never leave his wife anyway, she shrugs, hoping for contradiction. He’s a Pisces.

Elizabeth is as confused as anyone by contemporary sexual politics. Sometimes men are bastards, sometimes she’s man-daft. One minute she couldn’t go back to the rules, the next, all she wants is a husband who appreciates her. The job is ”totally business” but, deep down, surely there must be something there?

And why shouldn’t she be mixed up? She’s playing the same game as the rest of us, not off-limits in some social exclusion zone. Sex, with or without commitment, can be many things. The marriage of true minds is only one of the possibilities. Love doesn’t preclude trade. It’s hardly relevant whether they push fivers down your bra, sometimes it’s a very unequal exchange. Who’s the real user: the customer who pays up, or the married boyfriend who wants her dowdy and depressed?

Ain’t no such thing as a happy hooker, that’s what society wants to hear, but it’s not the moral of this bedtime story. There’s more than sin and misery at the House of the Rising Sun. If Elizabeth’s off sick she misses the place; OK, they squabble and bicker and fall out with each other, but it’s her social life.

Some days you drop by and the girls are having a ball. Cracking up over Louie’s dress sense, or the customer who only talks about industrial machinery (”nice guy, but boring as sin”), or the time Elizabeth took a punter into the sauna, topped up the booze and the temperature, and gave one of her famous foot massages. He falls asleep, wakes up two and a half hours later, and can’t remember a thing. Feels wonderful though, so she charges him full whack for the best night he’s had in ages.

On days like these you might glimpse a punter shuffling by in his shin-skimming towel or showing off his Ibiza stripe, skirting around the edges of female laughter, and in the moment before those Stepford smiles flicker on, you almost feel sorry for him.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications