BY MATTHEW CONWAY
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.
Blame Cagney. Blame Coppola. But mainly blame our immaculately dressed neighbour who lived in the mock Georgian Manor next door, drove a Jaguar, wore shiny leather shoes, and disappeared suddenly in the summer of 1999. Within days the car was repossessed, the house up for sale, and in a matter of weeks his wife and two daughters vanished like their sharp-suited father.
I was too young to understand what happened, and Bronwyn and Annalise’s pretty faces soon faded as childhood friends often do, like Polaroids in reverse. But I never forgot him, how he’d wink and toss me a pound coin on a summer evening, white teeth and sunglasses glistening in the balm. Seeing his face in the newspapers only fuelled my fascination, especially when details emerged which finally explained how he paid for that car and those shoes. I rejected the gory details, of course, mentally preserving him in amber as the smiling gent on the driveway, frozen in that moment when he was mine and mine alone…
Or maybe I just loved White Heat and The Godfather, my fascination informed not by criminal ambition but a hunger for cinematic deliverance. Whatever kick-started it, this curious obsession with the dark side of life – and death, so much death – lasted throughout my adolescence and beyond. And while young adulthood ultimately saw me fall hopelessly in love with art, music, and literature, the infatuation remained, like a loaded pistol in my pocket.
Luckily, as the years went by my life progressed in relatively tranquil fashion. The same couldn’t be said for Bronwyn and Annalise, who moved to a rented flat, were forced to attend a state school, and only saw their dad once a month after their mother had scraped together enough cash from her two cleaning jobs to buy three train tickets to Durham.
I often pictured them gently sobbing on their father’s orange jumpsuit-clad knee, trapped in a cold, grey visiting room stuffed with the traumatised children of other jailbirds. But still I found myself hopelessly drawn to the underworld, no matter how much I resisted. At the age of 21, after three years grappling with the demands of higher education, I realised I hadn’t thought about mobsters in years. Yet within half an hour of this revelation an innocent trip to the Grainger Market to buy paint brushes saw me return home with a bag full of lurid paperbacks detailing the grim exploits of everyone from John Gotti to Ed Gein. Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in…
Because while I’d gone from wanting to be a criminal to simply wanting to get them, the curiosity had only intensified: that pistol in my pocket was bulging and ready to go off.
And then in mid-2018 it happened. I quit my Masters Degree in Female Psychology and told my fellow shareholders at fledgling craft beer start-up Ugly Bitch they’d have to manage without me. Then, armed with nothing but my rucksack, two iPhones, and a paltry 25 grand ‘borrowed’ from my trust fund – real kind, dad, real kind – I commenced my quest to understand criminals by spending the next year meeting as many as possible. But this tour wouldn’t just take me to the mean streets of Brexit Britain. That’d be too safe, too easy. No, if I intended to tell these stories truthfully I had to go international. And thus, Travel Is Dangerous was born.
Buy why do we need to hear these stories? What is it about the sad lives of doomed law-breakers that so enchants us?
The answer is simple: we see in them a piece of ourselves. Sure, most people have never kidnapped a pair of newlyweds or buried a body in the desert. Few of us have joined a grooming gang or kicked a Millwall fan’s eyeball out of its socket. And not many people can truthfully say they’ve glued themselves to a train, sexually assaulted a police officer, and stolen a school bus filled with terminally-ill children in the same afternoon? (Lothar, episode 6.)
But who among us can honestly say they’ve never been tempted to do all of the above? Who can deny they see as much of themselves in a light-fingered Longbenton bricky as a gun-toting gang-banger from South Central LA?
I personally saw more than I care to admit. And make no mistake, the desire among these damaged, broken men – and it’s always men – to repent and rebuild conflicted sharply with the urge to return to their former lives, like dogs eating their own faeces. But I was acutely aware that this was out of their control: society had stacked the cards against them from day one, and was arguably shuffling the deck long before they committed their terrible crimes.
That so many of my new friends were significantly darker-skinned than me made me both relieved and ashamed to be born into such privilege. Frankly, I’m gobsmacked that more felons don’t revert to their bad old ways as soon as they re-enter a society that fears them. Editing the hours of conversations I had into bite-sized chunks of reportage brought home how determined they all were to seek forgiveness and make the most of their second chance. Even the ones who protested their innocence did so with a graceful acceptance that the best way to move forward was to put the past behind them, look to the future, and administer divine retribution to the bastards who put them behind bars.
So from Hoffenheim to Hereford, Williamsburg to Worthing, that year on the road didn’t just take me to unchartered geographical locations, it also transported me to uncomfortable places within my psyche I never knew existed.
But my need – my duty – to give a voice to the voiceless simply wouldn’t be beaten. So when midway through my US leg Dad announced he was refusing to fund my journey any longer – instantly putting an end to first class plane tickets and five-star hotels – I was forced to go guerrilla. Which I did by taking a part time job riding a Segway and dishing out organic smoothies to over-stimulated Google employees for 50 dollars an hour. The shifts were lousy, the customers demanding, and I fell off the Segway roughly once an hour. But it gave me invaluable insight into the equally difficult hardships endured by the people I’d been interviewing. Empathy was key.
After five tortuous days and several bruised arse-cheeks, I finally earned enough money to fly to Portland and meet one of my most favourite guests, a disgraced Gender Studies professor you’ll hear a lot more about later in the series. Luckily, Dad relented and agreed to let me access the remainder of my – yes, my – trust fund to spend as I saw fit. This extended my project by another six months, introducing me to an array of fascinating new interviewees, each one more frightening than the last.
And now, after wrangling with the painful editing process and tearing my side-parting out to bring you the best version of them – and perhaps me – Travel Is Dangerous has arrived. Maybe after listening you’ll find a better version of yourself too.
In the meantime, open your ears and free your mind. Because I don’t want you to merely hear this podcast: I want you to download and subscribe to it in the link below. But more importantly, I want you to step into their minds. And trust me, you will. Just as soon as you’ve downloaded and subscribed in the link below.
Say hello to my little friends.
Travel is Dangerous the podcast can be found here.