Crime reporter Duncan Campbell shares his thoughts on a republished memoir by Trevor Hercules on life before, in and after prison.
There have been many fine memoirs written by people who broke the law and spent long years behind bars.
A Sense of Freedom, by Jimmy Boyle, the Glasgow-hard-man-turned-renowned-artist, is an obvious one, as is Redeemable by Erwin James, who was jailed for murder in 1984 and who for many years wrote a reflective prison column for the Guardian. John Barker, the former member of The Angry Brigade, who was jailed for 10 years in the 1970s, wrote Bending the Bars, which is as perceptive as any about life inside.
Amongst professional criminals, Autobiography of a Thief by the great train robber Bruce Reynolds, A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun by Noel ‘Razor’ Smith and Gentleman Thief by the late cat burglar, Peter Scott, stand out for their wit and honesty. But Labelled a Black Villain by Trevor Hercules, first published in 1989 and now updated and republished, is different from them all in one very crucial respect: skin colour.
Spending most of his young life in children’s homes after his mother had departed to the US, Hercules was first arrested at the age of 16 – an experience that was to colour, in every sense of the word, all his future dealings with the law and society at large. It would be decades before his clashes with the justice system came to an end.
The different experiences of a black person, as opposed to a white person, at the hands of the law are stark. As a well-behaved teenager with a job, Hercules found himself being arrested after two of his friends got involved in a fight in the street and ran away; because he had done nothing wrong, he did not flee. He then had his head bashed against the side of a police van. “I had been brought up to believe the police were my friend so it was a real shock to be racially abused, not just by one but by all of them,” he recalled. He was fined £20 and put on probation and was soon to choose to live outside the law.
“I was one of the boys, checked out in a smart suit with a shiny black Jag and with the confidence oozing out of me,” as he puts it. “I was governor, did what I liked, said what I liked and if you didn’t like it, tough. I was a very arrogant young man.” He was soon running with a team of armed robbers and arrested again for much more serious offences. He gave a black power salute from the dock as he was sentenced, and served his time in Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Albany, Parkhurst and Gartree.
Throughout his time inside, prison officers would routinely bait him with racist remarks. He took them on, much as Jimmy Boyle had taken on equally provocative officers in Peterhead jail. There were the inevitable beatings and long periods in solitary confinement.
While in Albany prison on the Isle of Wight, Hercules – a keen footballer – found himself taking part in a tournament in which the team he was on was called the ‘All Blacks’. It had nothing to do with New Zealand or rugby and everything to do with confronting ‘England’ in the form of their white fellow inmates. Tellingly, the ‘All Blacks’ game with ‘Ireland’ was an amicable affair as the members of both teams – the Irish and black inmates – regarded each other sympathetically. The game was a violent one and started with the referee being attacked, and the All Blacks duly won the respect of their fellow inmates. A violently cathartic riot in Gartree prison, which led to a further year added on to his sentence, and his discovery that prisoners really did have to sew mailbags are recounted by Hercules lucidly and frankly.
He came out angrier than he went in and, in the 1990s, found himself back inside for other offences. After he emerged the last time, he decided that he didn’t have any more time to give Her Majesty and decided to use his experience to dissuade young men from going into crime and – almost inevitably – into prison.
The latter part of the new edition of the book comes under the title ‘Social Deprivation Mindset’, which is essentially Hercules’ own theory as to why so many young men – both black and white – from under-privileged backgrounds end up behind bars.
He has given talks in schools and to young prisoners to try and make them realise the pointlessness of ending up in prison and, as he puts it, “being sucked into a vacuum of hostility and aggression”. He has had to fight his battles in this too – against official indifference and obstruction – and he pays credit to the former Conservative MP and minister Justine Greening for her support in his bid to try and bring his message to a wider audience.
Last December, the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction of Winston Trew and other members of the so-called Oval 4 who had been framed for non-existent ‘mugging’ offences on the London Underground by a bent detective in 1972 – yes, it really did take that long for their names to be cleared. Trew has also written eloquently about the case in Black for a Cause. What is striking about both his and Hercules’ books is the routine racism – in school, on the streets, in the courts, in the police, in prison – with which both men have had to deal.
In his book, Hercules recounts how he sometimes handled the isolation and frustration of prison life by acting out fantasies: “Once I was Bob Marley and giving a concert in Lagos, Nigeria. I was introducing my band and, as I began to play with all of the Bob Marley mannerisms, an eye from the spy-hole asked if I needed a doctor. To which I replied with my favourite ‘fuck off!’” But behind his tales of derring-do, the message from this book is essentially another nod to Marley: “emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”.
‘Labelled a Black Villain’ by Trevor Hercules is published by Waterside Press. ‘Underworld’ by Duncan Campbell is published in paperback on 30 April.
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