A review of my book written 18 years ago for Spike magazine

John Steele: The Bird That Never Flew

Stephen Harper

The Bird That Never Flew is a crude but extraordinary autobiography. With a minimum of literary fuss, John Steele describes his unimaginably brutal life, which began in the gritty Glasgow estates of Carntyne and Garthamlock, continued in remand homes and approved schools, and culminated in stretches in the infamous “big houses” of Barlinnie and Peterhead.

  1. In 1978, thanks to the creative testimony of his friends, Steele was given a twelve-year sentence at Peterhead for a minor part in a robbery. Through destructive behaviour and “dirty protests” he constantly defied his brutal treatment at the hands of warders and continuously tried to escape from prison; as a result he was increasingly punished with beatings and solitary confinement.

Over the years Steele developed Houdini-like powers of escape and earned notoriety for daring jail-breaks. Most remarkable of all, Steele’s spirit was never broken, despite the best efforts of vicious and sadistic officials. But no sanctimonious nod to the “endurance of the human spirit” or “the power of one” can do justice to this book’s deep social conscience.

The book’s title is taken from a nonsense rhyme that refers to the symbols on Glasgow’s coat of arms:

The bird that never flew,
The tree that never grew,
The bell that never rang,
The fish that never swam.

Just in case there is any doubt about the rhyme’s relevance to the course of his miserable career, Steele starts the book by emphasising the stark social fact that conditioned his early life: the hopeless poverty of Glasgow’s post-war working class.

The early chapters, which deal with Steele’s childhood in the 1960s, are fragmentary and perfunctory; but the staccato style adequately conveys the randomness of a life spent on the rob and on the run. “All my young life was spent running away from something”, remarks Steele wistfully, “- bed, Carntyne, my dad, the world itself”.

The everyday life of Glasgow’s poor, Steele maintains, was not all bad. There was a strong sense of community; neighbours were regarded as family members. On the other hand, housing conditions were bad, incomes were exiguous and theft was both a necessity and a way of life: all the male members of Steele’s family were criminals. As if this were not enough, Steele was constantly subjected to appalling and motiveless beatings by his father Andy, a notorious gangster with a long prison record. Inevitably, Steele fils found himself caught up in a cycle of crime, violence and incarceration.

As the book progresses, Steele’s childhood thrashings blend seamlessly into the torture and beatings he receives from policemen and prison warders. Steele is humiliated and beaten up in schools and jails all over Scotland – Glasgow, Tranent, Peterhead, Inverness; the only thing that changes is the location. The routine and homogenous nature of this violence transforms the book from a dismal snapshot of local misery into an epic study of institutionalised violence. Truly amazing is that, despite all of his suffering, Steele’s tone is regretful rather than bitter, rational rather than vicious.

Indeed, there are some exquisite verbal confrontations. When the governor of Peterhead informs Steele – who is extremely ill as a result of a “dirty protest” – that “his nervous system is going haywire”, Steele responds wryly that the governor’s “prison system is going haywire”. Indeed, this book is profoundly concerned with “the system” – an irresistible admixture of psychiatric, medical and penal prejudice that deprives prisoners of their identity and humanity.


As well as constant torture and psychological humiliation, Steele has an absurd encounter with a psychiatrist, and is often close to being sent to Carstairs as a mental patient. But as Steele convincingly shows, destructive protest against his treatment was the only survival strategy available to him. Indeed, one is reminded of the theory of R. D. Laing, the controversial Glaswegian “anti-psychiatrist” who worked in Carstairs around this time, that what we call “mental illness” might actually be a perfectly rational behavioural response to extreme psychological disturbance.

Several poignant scenes lighten the sombre tone of the book. When Steele’s girlfriend visits him, for example, the lovebirds overcome the prohibition against physical contact by removing their socks and pressing their feet together under the table. Unfortunately, however, Steele felt unable to continue any romantic relations so long as he was in jail. His only constant supports are his brother and his heartbroken mother, who visits him wherever he is.

Steele’s other crutch is the arts: he is happy when he is able to sing the country songs he loved as a youth. And in Inverness, Steele smuggles a piece of pencil from the exercise yard into his cell, where he writes poems on pieces of toilet roll. Yup, there’s nothing like jail to reaffirm the transcendent power of art.

Of course, some will question whether Steele was really more sinned against than sinning. As in the case of Jimmy Boyle, the balance of responsibility will be shifted from society to the individual. It’s easier that way. But the comparison with Boyle is unfair to Steele, who was never violent and did very little wrong in his life; he simply grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although the book is more descriptive than didactic, Steele’s own view might be summarised by Isaac Asimov’s aphorism: “violence is the refuge of the incompetent”. But Steele does not criticise the cruelty of individuals so much as the dehumanising culture of a prison system in which inmates are called “animals”. This system is indeed incompetent, since the “lesson” it so brutally – and cynically – teaches encourages resentment rather than respect.

While it is never explicitly stated, Steele’s other major point – that criminals are not born, but made – is implied throughout the book. As the Scottish Executive pursues its mission of social inclusion, The Bird That Never Flew should be in every Member of Scottish Parliament’s Christmas stocking.

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  1. This John Steele character seems like someone I would love to find out more about, but I’m surprised I’ve never heard of him before? (I’m Welsh and I thought I would have come across this name before linked to the subjects of prisons etc!). 

    Anyway, what a story it seems he has to tell. I’m wondering if Steele offers any positive angles for improvement in children’s care and the overall prison system itself within his writing?

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