The paperback of Gary Bell QC’s fascinating, funny and very frank memoir ANIMAL QC is available from early next week.
I know we would say this, but it’s a rare treat.
It tells the story of Gary’s life, from his birth and early years in a condemned slum terrace in St Ann’s, Nottingham, through shoplifting, football hooliganism, fraud and homelessness, to an astonishing turnaround which saw him go to university as a (very) mature student in his twenties, and finally make something of himself.
Fewer than one in ten barristers are appointed Queen’s Counsel, and many (perhaps most) of them have attended the best public schools in the country.
Not Gary; he went to a poor state comprehensive, and left school at fifteen, in the mid 1970s, without even taking any O levels (he spent his final weeks segregated away in a remedial class for kids who had decided not to bother with exams).
I’m willing to bet that he is the only QC who is also an ex-miner, ex-ASDA shelf-stacker, ex-bricklayer, ex-fireman, ex-apprentice lawnmower mechanic, ex-Pork Farms pork pie production line worker and ex-fruit machine payout tester (which is where he got into that trouble vis-a-vis fraud).
He did all that and more before a conversation with a depressed Belgian on a beach in France inspired him to go back into education.
At Bristol University, surrounded by posh kids almost ten years his junior, he felt for the first time in his life ‘terribly lonely’, but reinvented himself – adopting received pronunciation and the Sloane Ranger wardrobe of the day.
He also boned up on the finer points of Eton, in order (strictly for his own amusement) to pass himself off as an Old Etonian. This worked so well that lots of actual Old Etonians swear they remember being at school with Gary – and he’s been ‘back’ to his ‘old school’ to take part in various old boys’ functions…
Today he numbers among his friends Hollywood film producers, lords and ladies, Cabinet ministers and opposition MPs, famous authors, actors and entrepreneurs – and many childhood friends from his little Notts pit village of Cotgrave, who still address him as ‘Animal’.
So how did he earn that nickname?
In this short extract from the book, Gary’s in his late teens, as a member of Nottingham Forest’s infamous hooligan firm, The Mad Squad:
CONVERSELY, AND I CONFESS not wholly deservedly, my own reputation [as a fighting man] was very high indeed.
Thanks to thirty pints a weekend and a diet of kebabs and Chinese, I now weighed fifteen stone. (At the time I thought this was fat, but it’s a weight which, regrettably, I haven’t seen for some years.) This excess of avoirdupois meant that, whenever our fans ran away from a scrap, I was odds-on to be caught by the opposition.
As a result, I was forever to be seen exhorting our firm to ‘Stand and fight!’ and I developed, somewhat accidentally, a reputation as a man without fear.
In fact, I was in a permanent state of abject terror.
I also acquired a nickname, one of which any self-respecting hooligan would be proud: ‘Animal.’
Young up-and-comers were anxious to address me as such in the street.
‘Alright, Animal?’ they would say, looking away nervously.
‘Alright, lads,’ I would nod back, gravely.
In fact, folk from those days still address me as ‘Animal’ when I see them, and I’m happy to answer to it: it was a name which brought me respect and notoriety in Nottingham and beyond, and seemed to speak to my courage and ferocity.
It was a good thing that most people didn’t know how I’d come by it.
Whenever Forest were playing in the North West, our coach would go through Derby, and we would stop at a Lipton’s supermarket to stock up on free drink, in a cross between Supermarket Sweep and Crimewatch. We’d arrive, the bus would empty, and nearly everybody would converge on the drinks aisle, like a plague of thieving locusts. The skeleton staff would try in vain to stop us, but within five minutes the entire section would have been stripped bare, and we’d be on our way.
I say ‘we’, but I never took any booze. No: while my colleagues were grabbing all the alcohol they could carry, I could be found elsewhere in the shop – loading up with gastronomic necessities. When I returned to the bus I would be laden with biscuits, cakes, and sweets and, as the rest of the lads cracked open cans of lager and bottles of whisky, I would be tucking into a family-sized Mr Kipling Bakewell tart, or a giant Swiss roll.
On one warm, early season morning, I came back to the bus with a huge block of Walls ice cream and a packet of wafers. I had no way of cutting it up, so I simply put a wafer at each end of the block and ate it like that.
The rest of the lads broke off from their drinking and stared at me, aghast.
‘I don’t believe you, Gary,’ said one of them, the improbably-named Herman Lyking. ‘You’re a f***ing animal!’
Thereafter, I was known as ‘Animal.’
BY GREAT GOOD fortune, I was only ever charged with one football hooliganism offence. On our way back from Manchester, we had stopped in Chesterfield for a drink at The Painted Wagon, then the home pub of the Chesterfield Town hooligan element. A vicious battle soon broke out, which only ended when two vanloads of riot officers arrived. By then, the pub was wrecked, and we were all arrested. The landlord, identifying the perpetrators, alleged that I had thrown a bar stool at the optics.
It was absolute rubbish – I’d been fighting off two Chesterfield fans on the pool table at the time – but I was charged with violent disorder, and remanded to appear at Chesterfield Magistrates. Luckily, I secured the services of a brilliant young solicitor from Nottingham who was the discerning football thug’s lawyer of choice; he tied the prosecution up in knots and got the case against me laughed out of court.
This run-in with the law helped to persuade me to pack in the hooliganism. I still bump into a lot of the old Mad Squad hooligans at Forest matches to this day, and the majority of us look back on our youthful indiscretions with a measure of embarrassment. A small hard core are still at it, into their fifties. I don’t condone that – I think it’s rather pathetic – but in some ways I can understand it. Like many of us, I moved on to achieve other things in life, which brought me a little of the self-respect I suppose we all crave. But there are those for whom those doors never open, and their fighting reputation is all they have.
And, if I’m honest, there was another reason I retired. One night after a game in Derby, I nipped into an alleyway for a pee. When I came back, The Mad Squad had vanished, to be replaced by several hundred local savages.
‘Where you from, mate?’ said one huge lout.
‘Spondon,’ I said, naming the first Derby suburb that came to mind.
‘What street?’ he said.
Football legend had it that if you hit the biggest member of a rival gang, and hit him hard enough, the rest would run away.
‘Forest Street!’ I snarled, and punched him in the nose. It was a fantastic punch, if I say so myself, and the effect on his mates was indeed instantaneous.
They pounced on me and kicked the living daylights out of me for what seemed like weeks.
Eventually, The Mad Squad turned up and made it more even, but I was hors de combat. After it was over, I was taken to hospital. The damage was only superficial – a couple of black eyes, a missing tooth, a cauliflower ear, two broken ribs, and a broken arm – but it was time for Animal to hand in his cards.
Surely there were better things to do of a Saturday?
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