I would never know either of them but each day for a week I saw them at the sea, strangers moving towards a tentative affair. He was as restless as she was desultory and each afternoon when I arrived she was already there, lying against a rock, her skin brown as a walnut, the tan-line like the part bitten into, paler. He often arrived later in the afternoon, hectically passing along the narrow path on a bike, his dog eagerly following behind, sometimes rushing ahead. He stopped a few metres from where the woman was lying, said hello to friends and pulled out a beach speaker and started playing music that gave to his energy an acoustic aspect. It wasn't enough that he talked loudly, that he would hum and sometimes sing, he wished to share as well the music that enthused him. I would usually have moved to another part of the beach whenever someone played music but the woman fascinated me, the man intrigued me and yet were it not for the tension they were generating between them perhaps my interest couldn't have been sustained all week. I was interested partly in the disparity of their bodily dispositions. He couldn't sit still and gave the impression that he wished, constantly, to impress. She moved as though reluctantly or necessarily. She could lie for an hour on a rock and then when presumably the heat in her body became too much to bear, she stood up, found a low-rock to jump from and swam on her back for a couple of minutes, cooling down rather than exercising. He couldn't lie for more than a few minutes: the only time he remained still was when he was seated next to her.
She spoke Spanish and appeared to be a tourist passing through this city on the Adriatic coast; he seemed local not just someone from the country on holiday in the city but someone who seemed in his demeanour a person born there and who would die there too. I'd heard from a fellow Croatian while I was in Zagreb that Split is a very particular type of place, the crime capital of the country and that many businesses were run by organised criminals. I had no idea if this was true and saw no signs of criminal activity during my time there but I don't think it is hindsight which makes me think that there was in this man's attitude and demeanour a suggestion of misconduct. He seemed so restless and forceful that I wondered how he made a living; what sort of job would match that need for movement. As she moved hardly at all, I never once saw her move towards him; he always came to her. When she shifted from the rock it was to dive off it and into the water before swimming for a few minutes before returning to the rock via some metal steps nearby. Most people jumped off the rocks and returned by the steps; only the cautious and the reckless did otherwise. The cautious would go down the steps before getting into the water; the reckless jumped from the highest point they could find and then clambered back up the slippery surface. He always jumped in with a loud holler and then clawed his way back out of the water. His friends reacted to his antics, hollering too or occasionally clapping if he added a back-flip somersault. I surmised he and the Spanish speaking women were both in their late twenties though her languorousness made her appear older and his boisterousness more youthful. It was usually after coming back out of the water that he walked over to where she lay, and dried himself next to her while they spoke for a few minutes in Spanish. He wasn't at all fluent but he could carry a conversation and I wouldn't have been surprised if he could chat in several languages, a modest aptitude garnered for seduction and for selling. I Imagined him with a stall along the promenade, sharing it with a couple of others, selling homemade jewellery but perhaps too drugs to those who looked like they wished for a smoke or a line, people enquiring about a necklace, a ring or a pair of earrings euphemistically. He knew at least a little English. He was talking once to a few hostellers, drunken Australians who were goading each other to jump into the water backwards from the highest point on the rock. He was telling them they needed to be careful. Some places were shallower than others. They chatted for a little while and when they asked him why he didn't have a motorbike since so many in the city seemed to have them, he said that he liked a pushbike it was harder to burn.
Perhaps usually his linguistic skills were enough to sell or seduce but she looked as if she wasn't excited by his energy and his ability to speak a few words of Spanish but irritated by his enthusiasm and bored by his limited vocabulary. One or twice I suspected she jumped from the rock to end a conversation rather than that she needed to cool down. Once I saw him jump in after her with an elegant dive that he hoped might make for his inelegant way with conversation. I spoke a few words of Spanish myself but wouldn't have been any better than he was at trying to make conversation and I couldn't have dived in after her with the panache he offered. Yet there was an affinity between the woman and myself, as though we both wished to be alone to observe others or to attend to our thoughts. Yet I never thought I could approach her and knew she wouldn't approach me either but each day I felt obliged to return to the same spot, somehow believing I would be letting her down if I didn't come. I wouldn't have been surprised if there were others there who felt as I did, fascinated by her and feeling too that she was observing us. Yet by the end of the week, I noticed in a couple of gestures that an encounter may have taken place between her and the young man. On one occasion when he came over as he sat close to her she, lying there, wrapped her hand round his calf. At another moment, when he came over again, he bent over her, possibly planting a kiss on her lips or just briefly blocking out the sun to make clear of his presence. I couldn't quite see as his gesture blocked out my view.
The next day she was gone, and I left a few days later. I supposed she had left the city, maybe the country, but the man still kept coming to the beach nevertheless. He would come all summer, as he would have been there the previous year too and the next one as well. Possibly he would follow her to Spain, or to Argentina, or Mexico, or wherever she lived, but it was as if though I couldn't see her anywhere in Croatia except sitting on that rock, and yet I could see her in numerous other parts of the world, I could see him in various circumstances in this city but looking lost elsewhere.
The night before I was due to return to Zagreb for a conference I saw him on the promenade with a few friends. They were next to a stall selling honey, olive oil and other local produce but I couldn't work out whether they were all just sitting around on a bench, affiliated with the stall, or waiting for potential customers for their own informal drug's business. I suppose the latter assumption was a prejudice born out of a preoccupation. My paper was on gangland culture in Manchester and whenever I travelled I was always interested in hearing about gang crimes or observing situations that might indicate organized crime, however minor. The friend who had talked to me about criminality in Split was also one of the assistant organisers of the conference. I'd known him for several years and when he invited me over he also insisted to make my trip more extended I could stay at his holiday home in Split since he'd been too busy to rent it that year. He was going to arrange letting it through an agency but they asked for paperwork and bank details and so on. Croatia bureaucracy he had said, laughing and handing me the keys. He said so much was done directly in Croatia rather than digitally to keep people in work rather than to run the country efficiently. When I got back from Split, I said I wasn't unsympathetic to the method: it allowed me ten days at the coast. He had intended at some stage to join me but organizing the conference took up more than enough time and so there I had been on my own, with endless opportunities to observe people.
My paper was mainly factual, a description of gang activities based chiefly on interviews with figures who found themselves in prison and had been willing to talk to the authorities in return for a shorter sentence. Once having already talked they were willing to talk to me too. It was a method well respected and trusted but I have always been slightly sceptical of accessing the truth through such means. I usually take what they say as fact unless I have evidence to counter the narratives they tell me. But just as they wouldn't talk unless there was a chance of a reduced sentence so when they do talk I have to accept that their words serve a purpose that isn't concerned chiefly with the truth. Often they will be telling a story aimed at ostensible revelation while concealing other information. Any story I tell out of the truth they offer me is exactly that: a story. I wouldn't at all wish to claim that all narratives are equal just that many are so partial, and so motivated by reasons other than revelation, that I am wary of the material I publish as fact. I am always suspicious when someone comes up to me after a paper and expresses admiration that I have avoided getting too theoretical and focused chiefly on the facts, as though in their response there is less interest in the truth than in the methodology. They like the way I do things rather than the revelations I have managed to find. Yet I am probably as suspicious of the theoretical as they are, as unwilling to rely on psychological or philosophical accounts to understand aspects of criminality. I have for several years concentrated on the anecdotal not because I believe in it; more as a means by which to escape the abstract. I have too often been to conferences where papers have been predicated on a thinker and the evidence flimsily gathered around that thinker's argument as the speaker determines to confirm the thinker's theory. The approach might ostensibly appear very different but the results seem to me to be no more nor less 'true'. Both are finally stories one anecdotal; the other theoretical and the reality of the criminal activity remains a mystery.
I stayed in Zagreb for several days after the conference. It was now August and many locals had left for the coast; Goran insisted that I stay for a few more days at a friend's place nearby. His friend had gone with his wife and daughter to Zadar; he had the keys to their Zagreb flat and said they wouldn't mind me staying there. My ticket was an open return and this time, on this trip, I had nobody waiting for me back in Glasgow. I stayed for an extra week, and each day I went to the Program cafe across the road from the flat, where I sometimes read for a while and where Goran usually joined me. On the first morning we were there he disappeared to the bakery and returned with a couple of croissants and a strudel we shared. I was surprised that the cafe owners didn't mind and he said it was normal in Croatia: Cafes usually served just drinks; people stay in cafes for hours and subsequently become hungry. He offered it as if to say he was amazed that this wasn't the norm everywhere else and I thought of the occasions in Split while I was in a cafe engrossed in a book, went off to the bakery, returned to the flat or sat on a park bench and ate whatever satisfied my hunger enough before returning to read in the cafe. Sitting eating the croissant and half the strudel seemed indeed much more civilised, and so I got into the habit of leaving my book to one side, disappearing around the corner and returning moments later with necessary sustenance. For the rest of the week, I read for hours in cafes, eating croissants, strudels, sandwiches, fruit, salads, and raw cakes - I went out in the morning to the cafe across the road, went back briefly to shower, and walked around the city till evening, making the day delightfully dawdle with constant cafe stopovers between walks. Zagreb is both a sprawling and compact city, a small city centre giving way to suburban spread that he insisted needn't concern me. Any pleasures I might find would be countered by the heated concrete I would pass through to get there. Stay in the centre he insisted go to galleries and museums but above all else cafes and bakeries. Between one in the afternoon and eight at night I did just that and during my week there I completed reading two books which were the antithesis of the tranquillity of my stay.
One was a recently published book on gang culture in Manchester; the other on the Liverpool scene that came out two years before. They were works which emphasised the anecdotal and while they were both well-researched and referenced they both game me a strong sense that they weren't telling the whole story but the tale demanded by the trajectory of gang culture narrative. Pride, honour and greed were emphasised, career inclines and declines constantly registered. I didn't blame the writers for this one of the disadvantages of relying so much on interviews is that the researcher reports the self-perpetuating mythology of gang culture. This may often include sentimentality to counter the braggadocio, sometimes regret at various failures, and self-pity at the impoverishment after years living in mansions, on large yachts and eating in restaurants where they didn't know whether to treat the waiter with contempt for his menial status or to be fretful over the waiter's watchful eye as the gangster wasn't quite sure how to handle the cutlery. But within all these experiences there were others which were mentioned but rarely dwelt upon. Reading the book on Manchester gangs I came across a few passages where they talked about one gang figure known by his nickname as readily as by his name: Johnny 'Bone' Marrow. When he was imprisoned his girlfriend left him for the leader of a rival gang. The passage talked about what an affront this was on his manhood and how he planned revenge while inside, and when released, a year later, he took revenge indirectly, since direct revenge would have suggested a failure of masculinity rather than its augmentation. He was in a pub one night where there were members of this rival gang, and when one of them walked passed him in the busy venue the froth on the spurned gangster's pint got spilt. The other man apologised but the gangster took him outside and beat him so badly that the rival leader had to guess which one of his henchmen the man happened to be.
It looked like now the gang leader who went off with the girlfriend would have to take revenge but he never did, and in time the girlfriend left the other gang leader and started sleeping casually again with Marrow. They were never officially a couple again, and sometimes he would beat her and generally used her for sexual favours, before leaving her for someone else. The story is told as one-upmanship and pride but I would have liked to have known more about how Marrow felt, locked up in a cell each night imagining his girlfriend having sex with not just another man but a proper rival. I also wanted to know what happened to the girlfriend, her motives for going off with the other gangster beyond base mercenary desire aware after all that Marrow would be released a year later and could destroy her life and what happened to her after he left her. It wasn't that such tales were never told: a couple of years ago a book came out in France about a gangster's wife and was popular. There are web forums which explain what it is like to be a gangster's girlfriend or lover. But often the anecdotes are no less lurid, as though the women too are living up to a mythology. On one thread a woman announced she loved being screwed by her boyfriend and also getting loaned out to others in the gang, other men who paid. She announced that she liked everything except shit and vomit. She was popular.
Yet no matter how extreme the deeds, it seemed most narratives contained an arc and expectation that didn't allow for the residual emotions but chiefly the ones that kept the story moving. My essays and articles were no different. They were much more readable than the theoretical ones and the statistical works that paid so much attention to the quantifiable significance of poor housing, broken homes and curtailed education but still didn't seem to me personal enough. Reading gangster autobiographies rarely offered the type of revelations I was seeking either. I thought that what I wanted to know about the gangster was the reality they shared with everybody else not only the exceptional nature of their lives.
To read on page after page about the people they were sleeping with, the drugs they were taking, those they were beating up or killing, removed a basic human compassion as the books emphasised instead the extremity of their deeds. There I was wandering around a foreign city, taking in the smell of the rain on the tarmac after a sudden and brief downpour, or in Split passing a poor drainage system that left a nauseous blend of rotten egg and cooked sugar by a Crepes stand next to the Riva; and there I was throughout the trip intermingling present experiences of solitude with past experiences with a partner who left a couple of weeks before my departure for Croatia, an excursion she had considered joining me on when I first announced it five months earlier. I wanted to know what similarities there were between a gangster's emotional reality and my own. A man who is locked in a cell while his partner takes up with a rival gang member shouldn't only be about the rage that we expect to be unleashed when he gets out but also the vulnerability and desolation he must feel while incarcerated.
One evening in Zagreb I started talking to Goran about my reservations about the work we did, about how I felt that whether we were telling the gang members' stories through their own words or abstracting them with quantitive analysis, we were missing the reality of their lives by refusing to accept in most ways their lives were just like ours. He wondered whether this was true; that when he or I fell out with someone we didn't expect to threaten their family, beat them up or hire an underling to kill them. The point is we show restraint he said. When we say we'd like to kill someone it remains either as a thought in our head or at worst an empty remark made to someone we know. We might express the frustration, he added, but we acknowledge at the same time the necessary constraints. Goran and I were sitting on the balcony of a restaurant a minute away from Jelačić square, looking down at a street full of cafes, with Goran insisting he felt very much at home in this restaurant or sitting at any of the cafes below. He believed that many involved in crime would not. Maybe it is because he feels he doesn't belong there, that the environment is middle-class and smug, cosy with people who have never known of a threat to their lives or recall a period in prison. Maybe it is because he has on his mind a drug deal that could go wrong or a minion who he feels wants to gain power at his expense. Perhaps he wants to impress a girlfriend who is beautiful and sophisticated and who is with him for the money and the thrill, which leaves him in a state of constant anxiety as he knows she will probably leave him eventually since she has already made a few remarks about his vulgarity, the stupidity of his friends and how his frequent cocaine use is affecting his sexual performance. Goran laughed as he said this, saying he was reading earlier that day about sexual dysfunction in gang members: that for many stress and drug use affected their performance in bed.
Later that evening while I was reading the book on the Manchester scene I wondered if the woman who left him for another gangster did so due to his sexual performance as readily as his incarceration. I imagined this man in his cell alone, his penis flaccid, trying to work himself up into an erection but in the process could only think of his ex now having sex with his rival. I see him lying there half-sobbing with self-pity and half with rage and thought that if I could put such a scene into a book I might be getting closer to gangland culture than any number of anecdotes about how a gangster chopped someone's hand off, brutally beat up a rival or was caught bringing in an enormous cache of drugs into a sleepy port. I could imagine myself in the former situation, desperately alone, incapable of desire and yet wishing for love, but which gangster would confess to that; how would it fit into the anecdotal nuggets of the gangster's storytelling skills?
The day before I was to return to Scotland, I saw on a Croatian news website that there had been a fire in Split along the Riva. It seemed about eight motorbikes had been set on fire and initially they weren't sure whether it had been started by a stand selling cooked goods next to the bikes or whether the motorbikes had been deliberately set ablaze. Goran saw the story too and said he wouldn't have been surprised if it had been deliberate. He said some months before there had been an attempted shooting at a cafe. A couple of men drove by on a motorbike and the passenger fired shots at someone sitting on a terrace. The bullets missed, breaking some glass and putting a couple of holes into a wall. Goran heard it was probably a biker gang responsible; one better at handling bikes than firearms. Maybe someone had avenged them where it would hurt most: destroying their bikes. I recalled the comment by the man on the beach, about push bikes not burning so badly and wondered whether he might have been the person responsible for setting the bikes on fire or may have been the one sitting on his friend's motorbike who fired on the terrace, fearing vengeance. I suspected he merely had information that meant he knew that someone was planning to destroy some motorbikes and used it as a cryptic remark to justify why he used a bicycle. Lack of money was probably closer to an honest answer but he didn't look like a man who would give an honest, modest answer when a dishonest, suggestive one was available.
Some of these musings came to me afterwards, around eight months later rather than fully formulated at the time, when Goran sent me a link to a Croatian newspaper. He had translated the headline and the opening paragraph, and a few other key comments in the article. There was also a photo. The headline said that a 28yr old man from Split had been arrested in Barcelona after a serious assault on a woman he had followed to the city after a summer romance the previous year. The woman was discovered unconscious after the neighbours reported hearing a loud thump and where minutes later the man visiting her left. They didn't do anything about it for several hours but the walls between the flats were thin and no further noise was forthcoming. They called the police. She had a wound to her head and strangulation marks around her neck. The man had left the city promptly, getting a train from Barcelo to Trieste, and then from Trieste to Zagreb before carrying on down to Split. He was arrested in his 9th-floor apartment on the outskirts of the city. Large quantities of drugs were found in the flat. The woman was recovering in hospital and apart from a few stitches to the head, she would be fine. Had the neighbours not found her, however, it could have been much more serious.
Goran added that it seemed I had a good instinct for crime in Split, even if the main offence happened in Barcelona but the haul of drugs the police found in the apartment might soon open up further revelations about criminal activity in the city. I asked him to keep me updated and over the next six months various arrests took place and someone in the news reported that the city was a Marseilles on the Adriatic: a moment of hyperbole that led to the journalist receiving a reprimand from a city official who reckoned that such exaggerated claims were detrimental to the tourist industry. The journalist proposed that it was not as detrimental as one of its citizens trying to strangle an object of affection in Barcelona. Split had no more a criminal element than many another city and seemed for tourists safer than most but the journalist had made his point amusingly and Goran thought it was about time Croatians spoke occasional truths to powers that were known to be corrupt. At least this is what he told me when I saw him in Berlin the following summer for the annual crime conference. It seems it was a well-known secret that city officials were corrupt and he gave as an example the recent arrest of a former mayor to bolster his claims. People have for years been ignoring the corrupt as long as cash kept coming into the country. Who cares if a small sum ends up in their pockets as long as large sums flow through the nation. I said that was no doubt evident in the UK too and gave a recent example of a minister who helped a businessman avoid a large sum in tax by suggesting the multi-millionaire file his planning permission just before a deadline. At least it sounded like any corruption in Croatia benefited the country rather than countered it: the multi-millionaire saved himself 40m; the state got nothing and the party received a paltry donation.
I asked him if he knew any more about the court case concerning the young man who tried to strangle the woman in Barcelona. He said he had been following it closely as the trial had expanded to include other criminals and other incidents, including the bikes that were set on fire the previous summer. There were several trials taking place. It seems this was an instance where there hadn't been too much honour amongst thieves: a number of them had talked to get reduced sentences. He intended to write a paper once the cases were over; maybe interview a few of the criminals once they were in prison. As he told me this I knew like my own work it wouldn't be a statistically cold examination of the data but a series of biographical tales about how young men got caught up in crime and saw that whatever dangers and risks were secondary to the power and prowess that came with having an abundant amount of Kunas and the authority to tell others what to do. Most will agree that it was their ego getting out of hand, a tale of hubris that will lack the quality of tragedy but will share something of the same arc. The stories they tell will not evaluate the world any differently but instead confirm the world as it is, and there place in it as briefly winners and now once again losers. Many will talk of going straight afterwards, of trying to help the next generation escape the life of crime they fell into. Sport will get mentioned and getting kids to work harder at school. They will sacrifice themselves as negative role models, a warning to people that this isn't a path they ought to take. But in their new role, in the anecdotes they will tell about the life they had previously led, they will be conforming again, just as they conformed in their criminal activity. A writer once differentiated between a rebel and a criminal by saying that a criminal wants what society refuses to offer them; a rebel doesn't want what society has to offer and wants something else.
As I look back to the young man's vitality that day on the beach, as I saw others watching in admiration, dismay and even disgust as he somersaulted off the highest rock, as he jerked his body to the music as though there was never quite enough rhythm in the songs to expel all the energy he had to dispel, I now see a person who conformed, who had decided not to find new ways in which to channel that energy into being himself (there is a book to be written on what that means) but channelled it into the path of least resistance. I thought too of the Spanish woman who for a moment acquiesced as the path of least resistance for her: an attractive young man showing interest, someone who could make her days in Split a little more engaging and colourful. Why not she might have thought, before eventually realising that her days in Barcelona would be made more troublesome and frightening when he made his way there; that energy which was initially appealing and that could never find enough of an outlet and which eventually moved to violence against her.
I project onto them my thoughts and feelings which if I were to put them into a paper would be a dereliction of academic duty but I believe that probably the perpetuation of the same stories, the same move into crime and the same tales about contriteness afterwards, doesn't tell us very much about criminal behaviour but confirms our assumptions about it. Just as one locks up prisoners all around the world so we also lock them into storytelling devices that are another form of incarceration. And I too am locked into a career that means that certain questions are impossible to ask and narratives impossible to tell. I am reminded of another writer who suggested that a man was put to death for failing to show the appropriate emotion at his mother's funeral. I suspect that if and when Goran interviews the young man from the beach, the young man will talk about how he got into crime and why he will try and do his best to remain out of it. Perhaps he will talk of starting a diving club for teenagers or pursue an interest in music. But what I would want to hear is how he felt that moment when the sun beat down on his back in the middle of the afternoon, a woman he wished to impress and whose body he wanted to caress nearby and of the salty water in his nostrils when he dived into the water. Coming out of the sea he would notice a few yards away from him, alone, his pale body shaded by a tree, someone observing him. He would give this man almost no attention, yet seeing in his fear of the sun a body that a woman has recently rejected, and in his demeanour a dejection that the sun, the rocks and the sea couldn't counter. He couldn't know that the man lying there could tell his story, nor at that moment would he probably have cared.
© Tony McKibbin