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Glasgow gangster William Lobban on his struggle to go straight

Longriggend, Polmont, Barlinnie, Dungavel, Shotts, Perth, Greenock, Peterhead, Hull, Wakefield.

William Lobban can recall life inside many high-profile penal establishments in Scotland and England - save one, his birthplace.

His Glasgow-born mother, Sylvia Manson, was 19 when she gave birth to him 46 years ago yesterday in Exeter prison. She had received two years in borstal for her part in a plot with her brothers to steal from an English country mansion. During the raid she almost severed a police sergeant's hand with her teeth.

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Her brothers - Lobban's uncles - were serious criminals. One, Billy, worked alongside Arthur Thompson, who was regarded as the "godfather" of Glasgow's east end. Another, Robert, was killed by a shotgun blast in 1983. In August 1977, a third, Vincent, got 10 years for an armed raid on a Glasgow social club.

Lobban was six months old when his maternal grandparents retrieved him from Exeter and began to raise him as their own at their Glasgow home. Both had severe drink problems, however, and his schooling was erratic. His grandparents had taught him to steal from an early age and his mistrust of the law was already well-honed. A life of violent crime beckoned.

Shortly before he turned 16, he was given 12 months at Longriggend in North Lanarkshire for an overnight break-in at a pub. While behind bars he met one Paul Ferris, and they became friends.

Lobban's subsequent career included armed robbery (he twice received six-year stretches for such crimes) and a stint pushing heroin in Possilpark, Glasgow. Then in 1992, at the High Court in Glasgow, his former friend, Ferris, stood trial on a number of charges, one of which was the alleged murder the previous year of Thompson's son, Arthur Thompson Jr. He incriminated Lobban and two other men for the murder.

Lobban also found his name in the frame for the deaths of Joe Hanlon and Bobby Glover, whose bodies were found in a car on the day of Thompson Jr's funeral. Down the line, Lobban took a Perth prison officer hostage, for which he received 18 months, and was involved in a riot at Full Sutton, York. Eventually, in the summer of 1998, he left Hull prison, a £70 giro cheque in his pocket.

Throughout it all, prison was an occupational hazard. But how do you turn your back on crime after a record like Lobban's?

Lobban insists that not only is he reformed, but also that the criminal career he was part of is an "awful, degrading and hopeless way of life". To him, it is the Glasgow Curse, which is what he has called his autobiography.

He now lives in Beauly, near Inverness. He keeps a couple of pit-bull terriers, and his car is a sports model with personalised number plates. His life, he says, is devoted to writing: he is working on a sequel to his book, bringing his story up to date.

"I wrote the book because I wanted to get my story out there, to clear my name and tell the truth," Lobban says in an interview in an Aviemore hotel. "I've been dragged through the mud in so many other books and tabloid newspaper stories. But there is another reason - my daughter, Tamara. I love her very much but don't see her often. She's 13. Even though she lives with her mother in Spain, she can go online and see anything she wants to see. There was a strong element of telling my story and speaking to my daughter.

"One day she will read it. And you wouldn't tell lies to your daughter, would you? I've got a lot of making-up to do to her."

We talk about his erratic upbringing. Not everyone who is born into such circumstances turns to crime. Was his own start enough to steer him in that direction, even without his uncles' criminal notoriety?

"That's a difficult one, but probably, yes. I don't think things would have been different if my uncles hadn't been in the picture.

"Being born in prison, and being born into a notorious Glasgow criminal family, and then there was the neglect I suffered as a child … I was left to my own devices, and had to live by my wits. It wasn't a very good recipe for success. Those things are all factors that contribute towards how you turn out, the older you get. I didn't have any respect for the law because I was brought up to disrespect it."

He didn't have any of the usual adolescent ambitions. "I was good at things like fitness and sports. I chose not to attend school until the RSPCC [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] then the social workers stepped in."

His grandparents were for years his real parents and he never knew who his mother was whenever she showed up on their doorstep -"She was always just an immaculately dressed stranger who would turn up with gifts on special days. I had no idea who she was."

One day, when he was eight, Sylvia, a woman as violent as she was unpredictable, reappeared and bundled him into the back of her Morris 1100 and dragged him off to her own Glasgow home. It was very much against his wishes.

"I remember kneeling on the back seat, my face and hands pressed up against the back window. I was in tears. My grandparents were standing in the close and my grandmother was in tears, watching the car pull away. That was such a cruel thing to do to a wee boy. There was no breaking-in period or anything. It was just like a kidnap.

"That was the first time I knew what it felt like to be held against my will. It wasn't very nice and it tore my little heart out. I've had that feeling from time to time - being apprehended, lying in a police station; situations I don't want to be in."

Lobban hated living with Sylvia and for the next three years ran away as often as he could, back to his grandparents. The RSPCC and the social workers began to take an interest in his welfare. His life had gone off the rails; all he knew, it seems, was crime.

He seems to have been addicted to it when he was younger. "I suppose it was out of necessity. I can't say it was down to peer pressure, as I was the one who was doing the pressurising.

"I think we maybe all have two different characters to us - the good side and the bad side- although a lot of us maybe don't identify with both sides.

"Some of us - me, anyway - have always been aware that there's a better side. Even as a youngster, I felt I was doing the wrong thing and could be doing something better with myself. But because of my lifestyle, it was always going to be one-sided. There was a lack of opportunity, a lack of guidance.

"My uncle Robert, for a time, tried to keep me on the straight and narrow, but that was wheeched out of my life when he was murdered in 1983. But there's always been an intuitive part of me that has recognised there is something different there. The younger you are, the more that lack of guidance keeps you on the wrong path.

"In prison, you just try to get on with your time and use it as constructively as you can, but ultimately all you ever are is a number."

If his abduction by his own mother was a turning-point in Lobban's life, so too was his decision, at the age of 23, to abscond from the semi-open jail at Dungavel in South Lanarkshire. By this time he had been in and out of jail, and had received his first six-year stretch for his part in an armed robbery in Rutherglen.

Does he feel remorse for his actions in his two armed robberies?

"The only person who was ever injured in them was a bar manager [in Glasgow]. Of course I feel bad about that, in the way that I now lead my life, in the way I've become as a person and think things through.

"He wasn't hospitalised; I smacked him in the side of the head with the barrel of the shotgun to tell him that we meant business. But it must have been a terrifying ordeal for him and his two female colleagues.

"There were no shots fired in the rent-office raid: the guard did what he was told and dropped the bag. Obviously he got a fright. But when you're younger, you don't really think about these things. It's not until you get older that you start looking at things in a different light."

Right from his first day in Dungavel he promised himself that he would escape - which he did, one day, when he was given a day pass. Rather than returning at the end of the day, he met up with old mates, kept his head down in a safe house in Cumbernauld, got involved in crime again. On an impulse he looked up his friend Paul Ferris, whom he had last met in Shotts prison.

"Escaping from Dungavel is a big regret in my life," he says now, "because if it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't have been caught up in all the Glasgow affairs, the gangland warfare that ensued. I wouldn't have done lots of extra time or ended up in prisons in England.
"My life took a different road, but what is done is done. This is what I'm having to deal with: the self-inflicted damage it has caused in the past, and trying to repair some of it."

Upon his release from Hull in 1998, he did go back to a life of crime - in Europe, this time. Somewhere along the way, in Spain, he fathered Tamara. It has been years since he last saw her.

"When I got out, there was no rehabilitation, nothing like that. It was hardly surprising that I went back to the only thing I knew, which was crime. I did not change at that point; my old identity still determined how I was seen.

"But for a long-term prisoner to come out, intent wholeheartedly on starting afresh with a new identity - the authorities have to help him change. He cannot do it on his own. It's impossible. People have to believe in him."

Lobban is happy with his new identity, that of an author. But he says that the process of going straight is a never-ending one.

He received a three-year jail sentence in 2003 in relation to the theft of a car, though he insists he was given the vehicle in good faith. He served his time in Edinburgh's Saughton and noticed that prisoners now had TVs in their cells. He says he prefers the old way, when there was more discipline in prisons. The Glasgow crime scene he once knew so well has changed too.

"The old Glasgow gangster has been rubbed out by the greedy drug-dealer and the cardboard cut-out gangland figures of today," he says. People such as Arthur Thompson snr and the Manson family, "were tough, tough men who never suffered fools - they had principles and moral codes, and they sorted things out, man to man. But not today. You can get somebody shot for a couple of hundred pounds now.

"I would love to have lived in the fifties and sixties. There was honour among thieves, as the saying goes. Whereas now, everyone is into backstabbing.

"It's a bit sad that that old Glasgow/Scottish thing, where people sorted their differences out one to one, is all finished."

He takes the view, however, that there are "still some good, solid guys out there. They're the people you never hear of, walking about with suitcases containing half a million pounds, day to day. They're the real gangsters. They're the ones I respect."

He himself, he insists, never wanted his name in the papers, "back in 1991 when I was the most wanted man in the country [when police were investigating the murders of Arthur Thompson Jr, Glover and Hanlon, and Lobban was still on the run from Dungavel]".

Lobban is delighted with the sales success of The Glasgow Curse; only last week its Kindle edition topped Amazon's true crime bestsellers list. He has done well for himself in book-publicity terms, too. He has a website, and more than 1500 followers on Twitter. He doesn't exactly hide in the shadows.

The 279-page book doesn't pull many punches, whether it's describing assaults in prison, or the planning that goes into an armed robbery, or what it is like to spend 23 hours a day in prison.

There's a lengthy passage in which he talks admiringly of his stint in the special unit at Shotts prison. It bore echoes of the special unit at Barlinnie, whose "graduates" included murderers Jimmy Boyle and Hugh Collins. In his time in Shotts' version, Lobban was allowed to breed tropical fish and he studied astrology on a correspondence course.

Naturally, one of the key chapters in the book (his life, too) centres on the August 1991 shooting of Arthur Thompson Jr, which Lobban describes as the start "of one of the bloodiest, most ruthless gangland upheavals" Glasgow had known.

Ferris is alleged to have responded to the book in a manner that prompted Lobban to contact the police. According to reports, police "have warned they will take action if the threats are repeated".

Ferris reportedly admitted sending online messages to Lobban but denied that they were threats and said he was seeking to sue the publishers of Lobban's book.

Is Lobban worried about Ferris? He shrugs. "I'm not the type of person that has ever hidden away. People might say, 'Why aren't you still living in Glasgow?' But Glasgow has nothing for me. I've no family there.

"If [Ferris] was serious about anything like that, surely he would have kept his mouth shut and gone ahead and done it. He is letting off steam. I think Ferris would be too cowardly to act on it himself. I will continue to report any threats to the cops as opposed to dealing with it in my own way, in a criminal way.

"But I'm now living this great life, I've turned the corner, and I've got to do things accordingly, the proper way."

The Glasgow Curse by William Lobban is published by Birlinn, priced £9.99. Visit theglasgowcurse.com.

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