In the melting heat of the Cote d'Azur, Jimmy Boyle is looking shy and awkward as he stands next to his latest sculpture, Adieu ... to All of That. His work, which sits on a pedestal against the whitewashed wall of his elegant villa, looks incongruous in these surroundings. Boyle is attempting to relax under the gaze of a camera, framed by the Eden he has created for himself - the pool, the petunias cascading from earthen pots and the bright sweeps of black-eyed pansies.

As he follows the photographer's directions, he is watched by a group of his house guests, who tease him with phwoars and wolf whistles,

making it difficult for Boyle to keep a straight face. He tries to ignore the motley crew around him, but his friends won't give him peace. ''Hey, you're a nancy boy,'' they goad. ''You're a big poof.'' His poise falters - but only momentarily.

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Boyle, whose is eternally tagged to the cliche ''the most violent man in Scotland'', might once have lashed out in answer to such taunts. These days, he reverts to the discipline he honed

during years in jail. As a prisoner, a lifetime before being reincarnated as an artist and writer, he railed against authority, daubing

faeces on the walls of his cells. Now, his designer shirt and cool summer trousers speak taste and his white hair, spiked blunt as his newly-mown grass, brings a sharp dignity to his 57 years.

It is no longer risky for Boyle's friends to rag him about an iron-man reputation which is now all but extinct. In the Gorbals of the 50s and 60s, where he warred against the establishment and rival tribes, enemies might have been minced for such irreverence. Then the man known as Baby Face Boyle was the star of his own West Side Story - without the romance and music. The finale saw him sentenced to life at 23 after the murder of fellow gangster, William ''Babs'' Rooney, a crime he has always denied.

My meeting with this erstwhile thug -

incarcerated in 1967 and eventually brought to heel in Barlinnie Special Unit following a course in sculpture and social etiquette - is to discuss his second novel, A Stolen Smile. It's about the theft of the Mona Lisa, which turns up ''where it belongs'', in a tower block in Leith. It took Boyle nine months to execute the witty swipe at the elitist art world. Although a departure from the autobiographical style of his earlier confessionals, it still draws on knowledge of an underworld foreign to many. The ink is barely dry and film rights are already being discussed.

His last novel, Hero of the Underworld, a dark, post-Thatcherite tale of redemption about a group of ex-mental hospital patients coming to terms with the outside world, was likened by Steven Berkoff to the work of Jonathan Swift and William Burroughs. It is about to be transposed to celluloid by Euphoria films. A fresh batch of limited-edition sculptures, which sell internationally for thousands, consolidates a seemingly bottomless well of creativity. Next year Boyle hopes to peddle books, bronzes and the movie at Cannes, not far away from his villa. He has his own annual party to celebrate the film fiesta and I am invited to this year's event.

Boyle's frenzy of creativity since we last met two years ago, in a cafe off Edinburgh's Lothian Road, is remarkable given the latest twists in what has been a dramatic life. He recently quit Scotland ''for good'' for this paradise. The breakdown of his 20-year marriage to Sarah, the psychotherapist he credits with his salvation, precipitated a move that was inevitable. But the loss of the woman he wooed and won behind bars, and an ache for the two children he has by definition had to leave across the Channel, is a transparent source of anguish.

We find some privacy to chat in a shady recess under nearby trees, wood pigeons cooing in the background. The cool slabs of a stone bench and table bring relief from the glaring sun. ''When Sarah and I split up, I cried and cried for days down here,'' he explains, welling tears bringing a sparkle to his piercing blue eyes. ''We still love each other very much. She was the foremost influence in my life.'' He speaks earnestly when he explains that he wouldn't be where he is now without her. ''She taught me how to love, she absolutely taught me how to love.''

He regards her as a mentor whose wisdom and selflessness have allowed them to remain friends. ''With Sarah, I landed totally on my feet. Inside her was the person I desperately needed at that time. She adored me, loved me for who I was. And remember she was going out of prison while I was still inside and getting a lot of mixed views of me, not all good, not all bad. It was a very courageous thing for her to live with.''

It is a sensitive moment, but not far off the

pre-party banter endures. The stalwarts who have been his support during this difficult time - including the playwright Peter McDougall - are preparing the house for the bash. Gardeners manicure his exotic grounds, chamber music has been ordered and floral arrangements, lilies, roses, daisies, take shape before our eyes. Boyle enjoys the joking around, although he is nervous too. Directors, agents and producers will be attending what has come to be known as the best party in Cannes.

However, happiness is the mood Boyle solicits most these days. An inner sense of repentance - of giving back - has helped. In the years after finishing his jail term, he and Sarah established the Gateway Exchange Trust in Scotland, to help HIV patients, drug-related charities and disadvantaged children. The project added another string to his bow, that of counsellor. He remembers a woman jailed for killing her husband after years of domestic abuse. She had been released after a lengthy campaign. ''I did murder him and when I went to court I had to say how horrible he was,'' she told Boyle. ''But what nobody asked was did I still love him? I did still love him.'' Watching drug abusers weaned off heroin later succumb to AIDS bore a similar pathos. Boyle attended too many funerals of lives extinguished long before last orders.

Sarah has taken no credit for her husband's transformation. Fiercely private, she has stayed out of camera shot, a back-room figure getting on with her own projects. It is the dichotomy of good overshadowing evil in Boyle that the Scottish media and the hang 'em, flog 'em brigade cannot compute.

News of the couple's marital demise brought press attention. A short statement told of the strain of individual aspirations as they grew in ''different directions'', but the foundation stones of the couple's union remain steadfast. The mutual respect they have for each other is rare. There could have been bitterness and recriminations. Instead Boyle asserts: ''Our marriage was so dignified. That was not us and we could only be us. Sarah was a loving person and a great giver. The more I am away from her, the more I can see the profound effect she had on me. She is the gentlest heart I have ever met and a

fantastic mother to our children.''

Boyle describes how his wife and children, Suzi and Kydd, along with his beloved Ma, Bessie, who he says he ''sent to an early grave'', are woven into the fabric of his soul. I believe him. Sarah was special. The middle-class

doctor, daughter of the late film censor John Trevelyan, ignored the flak and the fury when she took to visiting Barlinnie's most famous inmate after reading his autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, penned in just six weeks as he learned to type. Romance blossomed and she took a big gamble when they wed in 1980, when Boyle still had two years to serve. On his birthday she sent him presents, but it was her words of comfort in an accompanying letter that moved him. ''It was the most glorious letter it was just, aah ...'' He trails off, absorbed in his own

melancholy.

And then his pals show again. They are off now to a nearby market place to stock up on provisions, and ask Boyle to join them for a beer afterwards, when the goading will continue. They know a gentler soul than the Boyle who was a feared brute and collector for loan sharks. While he maintains the death of Rooney - carved up during a horrific spat - was the work of an unnamed friend, Boyle has never hidden from his own wickedness. He lashed out plenty when the mood took him. While in jail, he was given a further six years after riots in the notorious Porterfield Prison cages of Inverness, which left an officer badly injured.

Tried and acquitted for earlier deaths, the young Boyle became prime suspect. He had already tasted years in punitive institutions - including a draconian spell at St John's List D Catholic school in Glasgow, run by De La Salle monks and now subject of a childcare scandal - for petty theft and significant violence. He fled to London and was entertained by the Krays, before being apprehended in the British Lion on Hackney Road in east London in 1967. Determined to adhere to the ''don't grass on your mates'' criminal code, he ate porridge in penal establishments for 15 years.

That was all a lifetime ago. Boyle took his

punishment and wants to move on. Now he can laugh at himself and life, and discuss love and loss with bohemian eloquence. In fact, he has become a bit of a big girl's blouse. There, I've said it and I'm not afraid. Each Monday he lights a candle for Bessie, who guarded her four boys unconditionally. Widowed as a young woman by a love rat and violent thief, she cleaned

corporation trams and posh houses from dawn to dusk to support the family. Bessie died of

cancer while Boyle was still inside. Her last prison visits to her son, when he just wanted to reach out and hold her, broke him up. He learned the rosary to cope with his grief. ''Every Friday at around six o'clock (the time she died), I made a decision to say the rosary for my Ma,'' says Boyle. ''I had forgotten what Hail Mary was and I had to relearn it. I couldn't ask anybody for help. It was me saying, 'I'm never going to forget you.'''

None of this ''I'm a human being now'' business has washed well in Scotland - part of the reason Boyle has seemingly turned his back on his roots and the Edinburgh he still adores. He knows through experience not to expect sympathy, but can joke about it. He describes how his friend Billy Connolly teases him about Scotland's unwillingness to forget: ''Billy jokes, 'My reputation's worse than yours in Scotland, Jimmy.'''

The spate of press interest at Boyle's recent misfortune disturbed him. For years the artistic and literary progress of a man who served

six years in solitary confinement has been

a thorn in their sides. The now-defunct

Barlinnie Special Unit, a unique exercise in penal reform, tamed and retrained its most volatile inmate. He became its greatest success story, but forgiveness is not in the lexicon of many Scottish homes. And those who were dubbed ''bleeding liberals'' for supporting him were often dismissed as hangers-on. Some may have been, but others trusted what they saw in Boyle.

If the rehabilitation of offenders were an exact science, Boyle did it by the book. Twenty years on, he still rises at daybreak each morning

perfecting the tough exercise regime that kept him sane in prison. He could have served his term comatose, he says. ''You could sleep your time away with pills or get out of your head. I made a conscious decision not to.''

Now he cycles for an hour around the Cap d'Antibes, gob-smacked at the azure seascape and French-Italian Alps which have become the stunning backdrop to his life. Then it's more sculpting. Adieu ... to All of That is breathtaking. Indeed, all his clay work ripples with the

physical strength he might once have channelled into violence. His new sculpture, which represents a woman blowing a kiss to her past, could be seen as a fond farewell to Sarah and their

history, but Boyle insists the work symbolises his nostalgia for Scotland, not his marriage. He tells of how he is planning a visit to Edinburgh to see his family in the next few weeks.

In the afternoons, he writes. A Stolen Smile is being tweaked. He enjoyed creating it - the

private access to the Louvre that gave him a chance to walk round and imagine how he would steal it and the precious moments examining Da Vinci's work, studying that smirk. ''It's the most beautiful and inspiring painting in the world.''

A dunce at school, Boyle now has the confidence to stand up and challenge the elite. Contemporary art - Tracey Emin and her dirty drawers - does nothing for him. ''All of that comes through in my book. It sends it up.

People have got elephants painting with their trunks and selling the results.'' I laugh and tell him I could be an artist. ''Jesus Christ, everyone is an artist,'' he smiles. ''It's like the Emperor's New Clothes.''

The sculptor never sells in Scotland where critics often said he rode high on infamy, not

talent. But in New York, Moscow, the Far East and Paris - where he is soon to be the subject of a documentary - he has been successful and his clients know little of his past.

Deciding a decade ago to cut free from the media was, he says, ''like coming off drugs''. It allowed him freedom to discover who he was. That freedom didn't last. Asked to take part in the Lord Provost's Commission for Social Exclusion in Edinburgh in the late 90s, he pledged to share his wisdom on the subject with the police, providing they didn't tell the press. ''I was walking to the shop and I saw this bill board, 'Killer Boyle tells police how to do their job,''' he says. ''I was absolutely terrified. I went around every newsagent, opened the bill boards and stole all the bills because I thought my kids will be walking back from school and see this.''

Suzi, at 17, displays an enviable independence. She's at boarding school in England studying drama on a course she discovered on the net. ''She texts me every day,'' says Boyle. ''She wants to go to Australia backpacking with her pals in summer.'' He adds anxiously, ''I'm like, 'Okay'.'' The 14-year-old Kydd is coming to see his father soon. They will swim together and watch some football in Italy, but Kydd won't be let off his homework. ''I'll go home later this month to see them,'' says Boyle. ''Kydd will be with his pals and I'll be, 'Hey, what about me?''' Recently the three took a holiday to Dubai together. ''They are my pride and joy but they gave me such a ripping - they tear lumps out me teasing me.''

Being a good father after the unmitigated mess he made first time round with children from an earlier union has been important. In 1995 Boyle's son, James, was stabbed to death in a Glasgow street. ''The poverty of my childhood having sucked me into crime had the inevitable consequences,'' Boyle has said. ''An absent father, I spent James's birth and formative years, in prison. I was never able to make up for those absent years, no matter how I tried.''

He did, however, attempt to resolve his

relationship with his other daughter, Patricia, a product of the same relationship. He thought he was doing a good job until she went to a Scottish tabloid in 1999 with a kiss-and-tell tale, demanding #10,000 for a deal. She was given a fraction of the sum and damaged what she and her father had been rebuilding. ''She set me up and sold her story to the newspaper, which deeply hurt me,'' he says. ''I didn't read it, but Sarah did. I wish it could be different. But I always think time is a great healer.''

Forgiveness is a theme Boyle tries to embrace, particularly in relation to his father, who died when he was four. ''I tried to find out what sort of a person he was,'' he says. ''The more I got to know him, the more I didn't want to know him because of how he treated my mum.'' A relative told Boyle how his father once flew into a rage after his wife identified herself as he took another woman on a date. It pained the younger man. All he really remembers of his father was of an individual lying in bed next to him after a bloody assault, swathed head to toe in bandages.

Boyle has mellowed with age. He can't believe he will be 60 in three years. ''My father was a product of where he was brought up, just as I was,'' he says. ''If I don't forgive my dad, I can never forgive myself.'' Now, when he says a prayer for his mother, he adds ''and my Da too''. He has a similar mercy for others who have served at her Majesty's pleasure. The children who sparked a lynch-mob mentality after killing Jamie Bulger deserve some peace, he says. ''They were only kids and they seem to have felt a great deal of remorse.'' Myra Hindley gets much shorter shrift. ''I don't think she should expect an easy time because she didn't come clean. If you ask for forgiveness you have to be absolutely honest.'' It has all been too little too late for her in Boyle's eyes.

Twenty four hours pass and happy, well-heeled guests are arriving for the party. Sophie Gardiner, a producer, shares lunch with me as champagne flows. She is working with European and Canadian funding to deliver Hero of the Underworld on to the big screen. Jonny Lee Miller has been chewed over as a possible lead. Not far away stands a different kind of exile to Boyle - Richard Tomlinson, the MI6 agent who has just published some rather awkward memoirs with Mainstream. Meanwhile, Peter McDougall is behind the bar, serving up cold flutes of bubbly. He knows he is easily mistaken for a couthy barman, but with the Prix Italia, three Baftas and old mucker Harvey Keitel in his next film, he couldn't care less.

It is a surreal but lovely day. I have scrubbed up better than expected in my frock. Yesterday, I was wearing a light sweat, an off-white pair of cords and a vest, stained with chocolate, after the airline lost my luggage. I looked way out of place in these splendid surroundings, what with Madonna and the Aga Khan regularly chilling down the road. Boyle didn't mind.

''The luggage thing happens to me all the time,'' he ventures. ''I'm on first-name terms with the staff at baggage reclaim in Nice.'' He might well be, but it's unlikely they'll know much about who he was - and that's exactly how he likes it. An eternal optimist, he knows emotional pain - the split from his wife, the move to France, suffering for his art - is sometimes necessary. It has been his finest teacher, the one that has truly engaged him in his own sense of freedom. n