“Like the ghost of Jacob Marley, I have spent my life carefully fashioning the chains that now bind me, link by link”: a graphic, memorable chronicle of a life spent causing mayhem.
Noel Stephen Smith—the “Razor” bit comes from his favorite weapon—grew up in the depressed Thatcherite England of a quarter-century past, a child of low-income housing estates and the streets. He could have been a laborer or a delivery boy; instead, he records, he took what seemed the easier way out and began robbing, fighting, stabbing. For this he spent his teendom in the last of Britain’s borstals, a since-abolished hell that trained him thoroughly for a life of crime. Whereas some long-imprisoned criminals turn to religion, Smith took to the pen and, in the late 1990s, became something of a literary sensation by writing impassioned accounts of his servitude. To be sure, places like Wormwood Scrubs can’t be any fun, but Smith doesn’t shy from acknowledging that he had put himself in harm’s way from a very early age on; there’s no society-made-me pleading here but plenty of rueful remembrance. (Example: “There are many pockets of loneliness in the life of the unsuccessful career criminal . . . but none is as torturously poignant as being conveyed through familiar streets in a prison van heading for incarceration.”) Elsewhere, though, Smith writes with workmanly pride of bank robberies committed, fights fought, screws put to prison screws, and escapes effected. American readers may marvel that a life sentence in England seems to translate to eight years or so, depending mostly on the mood of the nearest guard, but there’s no question that Smith will be behind bars for years to come; he reckons that even with the most lenient of terms he won’t be out until 2013.
A regretful, thoroughly well-written memoir that closes with these defiant words: “I never slashed a face that wasn’t looking at me, and I never robbed a bank that wasn’t insured.”