AS far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.
Not the confession of some penitent journalist before the Leveson Inquiry, but the opening line from GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese's dazzling and brutally honest portrait of the Mafia at work, and one wiseguy in particular – Henry Hill, King Rat.
Hill, who died this week, was the man who gave evidence against his former mob colleagues and lived to tell his tale to Hollywood. He passed away not in his own bed but in a hospital one, having reached the grand old age of 69. No blade in an alley. No bullet in the barber's chair. No snooze with the fishes. It was cigarettes and heart trouble that did for him in the end.
Largely as a result of Ray Liotta's portrayal of him in the film, Hill became quite the celebrity. He was seen as once a bad boy, but one who wasn't as bad as the rest of them. His rehabilitation followed a familiar pattern. From the real Henry Hill to the fictional Tony Soprano, pop culture has treated America's ultimate crime family as if they were the Waltons with a few minor character defects. Sure, they lie and cheat and steal and worse, but whaddya gonna do? And you won't find men who are nicer to their mothers.
Laughable, but true. The myth of the mobster as a latter-day Robin Hood with better threads has long been a potent one. Though exported all over the western world by the movies, television and literature, it found a particular home in the west of Scotland in the 1970s.
New York had its mean streets, but ours were meaner. Just as the Mafia went from the slums of Sicily to the slums of New York, so Glasgow's gang culture seeped out of the tenements. By the East River and in the East End, being part of a gang wasn't just something to do; it was a way of life, a means of gaining respect from your peers. It was also a short cut to the jail, the hospital, and sometimes the morgue, but none of that was listed in the advert. Then, as now, a gang was seen as a family for those who didn't have one, or one they wanted.
Though they stemmed from the same environments, the gangs of Glasgow and the gangs of New York were heading for very different places. America's number one crime clan was far more financially successful than Glasgow's gangs would ever be. Mafia Incorporated could call on a common Sicilian heritage to bind the staff. Glasgow's gangs were small tribes flung together by religion, or because they came from the same corner of a far-flung housing estate.
Mafia Inc recruited from within, farming out the grubbier work as soon as they could to new immigrants, while they climbed the ladders of politics and business. Glasgow gangs lived for the Saturday night blade fight followed by a bevvy session into oblivion. The lucky ones didn't stay with the firm, instead marrying, growing up and moving away. The luckiest Mafia Inc members had long, lucrative careers and similar retirements.
When it came to selling themselves as a brand, Mafia Inc were vastly more successful than Glasgow gangs. Scottish artists and filmmakers have put the latter on screens big and small – see Small Faces, Neds, ad snorem – but Glasgow gang culture has never gone mainstream. Henry Hill might have wanted to be a gangster from as far back as he can remember, but no working-class Glaswegian kid with any nous ever saw becoming a ned as a wise career choice.
In America, there was, eventually, a backlash against the glamorisation of the Mafia. It began, appropriately, in the Italian-American community fed up with the jokes, the impersonations (another cotton wool ball-assisted spoof of Marlon Brando was an offer they could easily refuse), and having job applications turned down because their names ended in a vowel.
In The Sopranos, David Chase brought the two Italian-American sides together with electrifying results in the characters of Tony Soprano and his therapist, Dr Jennifer Melfi. Soprano was the late-model version of a goodfella. Still making money, but fat and stressed and feeling like a deer being chased by a pack of FBI hounds, his life is such a mess he's resorted to seeing a shrink. Melfi, educated, civilised, horrified by violence, is the antithesis of Soprano and all he represents.
Though Mafia Inc still functions, the old firm in America is not what it used to be. The criminal families who only wanted to do business eventually turned out to be very bad for business. New York wanted to pull in the tourists, Vegas too, and outside a Scorsese movie street violence was not cool.
Like a lot of American jobs, the position of mobster has gone abroad, to Russia, China, and the rest of the wild east frontier. This lot might ape the goodfellas of old;they might know every line from The Godfather and have a poster of a young Michael Corleone on their wall, but they are not the same. Their business is more likely to be computer fraud and drug running than loan sharking and protection.
In one sense, though, the hoodlums haven't changed. They're still seen as heroes by a certain kind of misguided youth and movie fan, still seen as big men to be admired. The mobster legend is a hard one to slay.
Henry Hill knew as much. He never earned as much from being an informer as he did from being a goodfella, but he got by. Nicholas Pileggi's book, Wiseguy, made him a minor celebrity. Scorsese's picture, for which Hill was reportedly paid close to $500,000, made him a star. After spells living in witness protection schemes the old enterprising instinct kicked in and he broke out to speak at conventions, write books, even open a restaurant. His continued existence was proof that the one-time untouchables had been to a large extent shut down.
Look closer at Hill's life, though, and it doesn't seem much of a triumph. He drank to get over what his partner called his "demons", but he never succeeded. Was he ruined by regret over a life wasted, a life that, whatever the protection he was afforded, was always spent wondering when the knock on the door would come?
Hill, like his Mafia buddies of old, didn't get away with anything in the end. The moral of his tale is that crime pays; it's just never enough.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.