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Monday, 19 March 2012

Gang of One

‘Gang of One’ is the story of Scottish banker Gary Mulgrew’s spell in the Big Spring penitentiary in Texas. One of the so-called ‘NatWest Three’, Mulgrew was indicted by the US authorities in 2002 for his part in some dodgy financial dealings. Having invested with a NatWest client who was directly connected to Enron, he made the mistake of not telling his employers about that investment, hence the spectacular fall from grace.

One of the achievements of his book is that it manages to evoke sympathy for an investment banker who was perceived to have profited massively from some very sharp practices. Mulgrew appears contrite about his role in so-called ‘casino capitalism’ and wisely avoids going too deeply into the details of the case.
He focuses instead on the human interest story surrounding his separation from his son Calum and the search for his missing daughter, Cara Katrina.
His daughter is missing because, when the scandal was at its height, his ex-wife abducted her and fled to Tunisia, leaving Mulgrew and his son to come to terms not only with the gathering storm of his impending extradition and imprisonment, but the disappearance of half of their family unit. With his career and his marriage in ruins, he was forced to draw upon reserves of fortitude which he attributes, in some part, to his Glasgow upbringing.

He writes amusingly of his preparations for prison. During the limbo period after extradition, while he is hanging around in Houston awaiting instructions on where to report for his prison sentence, Mulgrew imagines all of the negative possibilities of prison life. From his perspective as an average middle-aged executive: “they broke down into two distinct categories ... I labelled the first group BAD: things like poor diet, boredom, bad beds, no pillow, cold showers, shared toilet, no tea or coffee … The second heading covered murder, rape, violence, death etc., so after some thought I named that group FUCKING CATASTROPHIC”.

He hires a personal trainer to prepare him for the probability of physical challenges but, when the time comes, it is his quick-wittedness and ability to assimilate which prove to be his greatest assets in Big Spring.

In spite of his initial dread at being perceived to be the ‘Enron Guy’ (and therefore a likely target), Mulgrew uses his wits to carve out his own little niche in the prison. Convention demands that each inmate in Big Spring must be affiliated to a gang. Unable to join any of the various ethnic groups and unwilling to side with the loathsome Aryan Brotherhood, Mulgrew survives by forming his very own ‘Gang of One’. He manages to befriend the right kind of people and turns his energies positively towards gainful employment, first as a toilet cleaner and then in a ‘promoted’ post in the library. His real focus is on re-uniting with his son and then on finding his daughter. The pain of separation from his children is the thing that gives him the strength to endure his imprisonment with equanimity.

The boredom and brutality of prison life is evoked skilfully. Long periods of inertia are peppered with brief but sickening bouts of ultra-violence. Mulgrew is horrified to witness some awful ‘revenge’ beatings. He reacts in the way that anyone who has not been anaesthetised to that level of brutality would react: he wants to intervene. His instinct is to help the men being ‘punished’, but is warned that to intervene would be equivalent to writing his own suicide note. The experience makes him question what it is to be human:

“I had given up all pretence of not watching and sat on my bunk … wondering where the hell I was. I hated all these people, I hated myself for watching it. I hated the people who had sent me here. Is this what those cunts in the Department of Justice wanted to teach me? Was this how anyone was supposed to be corrected? I wanted to scream, to tear the walls down, to attack them all, but I just sat there like I was watching a movie”.

This book provides an entertaining read, due in no small part to the clarity and candour of Mulgrew’s voice. The prison scenes are written with a cinematic eye for detail and it would be no surprise to see the story translated to the big screen sometime soon. I can think of several big-name Scottish actors who might quite fancy the idea of playing the main man in the ‘Gang of One’.

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