42 Days

By Andrew O’Hagan

When I was a student, I’m pretty sure I spent too many hours crafting bespoke insults and drinking unspeakable drinks, yet I did have a diligent side and it would often emerge late at night when I could be found in the office of the university newspaper editing copy and messing around with Spray Mount. On one such night a man arrived at the office door looking quite desperate. At first I thought something violent must just have happened to him: he appeared frightened for his life and he wanted my help. It turned out that it wasn’t a single event but life itself that had made Michael frightened; in a manner of speaking, he had been, for a long time, on the run from the conditions that determined him. He was always being arrested in Glasgow and accused of crimes he swore he hadn’t committed, and he was subject to constant questioning about events of which he had no knowledge. After listening to Michael for an hour, I remember wondering if he hadn’t walked straight off the pages of Kafka. I bought him a drink and listened to him. We smoked in the silent office, and I felt, perhaps for the first time, that I was in the presence of someone who felt the world was entirely hostile.

Michael moved in a world where it could be taken for granted that civil liberties and personal security were not rights but luxuries. It’s no secret that certain parts of Britain, in those days, were policed by people every bit as criminally-minded as the people they were homing in on. Michael had been interrogated or stood in line-ups several hundred times. ‘He has one of those faces,’ a friend said to me. ‘It has guilt written all over it.’ My late-night visitor said it started at school, where he was delinquent, and hadn’t stopped in the 30 years since then. He had been in Barlinnie Prison during the rooftop riots and inside the ‘cages’ at Peterhead and he spoke alarmingly about officer brutality in every institution. Of course, I didn’t take Michael’s word for it. I spent months looking into his claims, and came to realise, after many travails and several fresh revelations, that there wasn’t a single issue he had raised that night that wasn’t true.

I published a story about him. It made a difference to me: I knew it would make no difference to Michael. It’s not so much that some people have the wrong faces, or that they harbour seemingly implausible stories, but that we live in a state that can show itself too ready to gorge on vulnerability.