A LITTLE daft laugh emerges on realising you’re walking around the bar of a swish Liverpool hotel looking for someone who has killed dozens of people.
What is a trained killer supposed to look like?
But just then Henry Gow emerges from the side bar of the Sir Thomas Hotel and introduces himself. And when he takes off his wooly hat you realise he fits the stereotype admirably.
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Gow’s skull bears a neat two-inch scar, the result, he later informs, of someone trying to open his head with an axe. There’s the deep slit above the eye, courtesy of a knife attack and a hole just east of his top lip, where a poker was once inserted.
Does he have killer eyes? Well, they are small as a sharks’, yet blue as a tropical sea. However, Henry Gow also has a winning smile, which is appropriate because he gave up killing people for a living, in the SAS, the South African Army and very possibly the RUC, to become a very successful barrister.
But the stabbing question in my own head is how did a boy from north Glasgow’s crime-ridden Possilpark, who grew up addicted to violence end up fighting in court?
The story he tells is so hairy, scary and at times sad, it’s screaming out to be made into a film.
“My first father, Allan, was a small-time gangster, and in fact, the whole family were criminals.” he says, as if describing a the cast of Goodfellas. “My father was shot dead, probably murdered. Uncle John did life for murder and my uncle Wally shot my uncle Henry in the head with a shotgun, after an argument over the division of warehouse spoils. Henry, of course, was an enforcer for the Krays.”
Of course. Gow’s mother divorced his father early on (revealing both common sense and bravery) but had a succession of boyfriends, one who beat up Henry. The family (if you can call it that, his brothers and sister) moved continually. Young Henry attended around 20 schools, all before he was sixteen.
Always the new kid on the block he was picked on, pressured to join the local gangs. But the skinny little youngster had an independent mind. “It wasn’t anything noble. I thought they were numpties, which made me a target. And I stood up to them, which resulted in (points to his face) the scars. All before I was fourteen.”
He adds; “Fighting didn’t frighten me at all. The earliest memory I have, I think I was four, is of my father kicking the living daylights out of a bus driver, who’d argued with my mother.”
Despite constantly battling, Gow never fell foul of the law. “My grandma kept me right. And it was always self-defense. I was always picked upon.”
Aged seventeen in 1970, Gow, thrown out by the latest boyfriend, decided to join the army but failed his first medical due to ‘near malnutrition.’ The eight-stone teenager persisted and with his worldlies crammed into plastic supermarket bag ended up in rain-soaked Aldershot.
But isn’t there a dichotomy here in that here he was now joining a very big gang? “The army wasn’t numpties,” he counters very quickly. “And I wanted a home. They fed me and clothed me and all they wanted me to do in return was kill people.”
Yet, violence was rife. His parachute regiment, encouraged a bullying culture. (“Character building.”) This was a young man who was already paranoid, a social misfit and inarticulate. “To be honest, it was so bad it drove me to the point of suicide.”
The teenage Gow backed down to no one. Even combat veterans. “Hit first, think later.” He trained hard and became a middleweight champion. He fought civvies “for fun” on Saturday nights. “I’d wake up on Sundays with my bloodied face stuck to the pillow.”
By the time he was posted to Northern Ireland Gow was programmed by training and bullying into becoming an excellent trained killer. (The paras mantra: For the right to kill you must suffer.) “I never feared being hurt. I now felt invincible.”
Gow wanted to kill as many IRA soldiers as he could. “Yes, and I was a Catholic. But what they did to the country, to Irish people, made me renounce my religion.” What about the UVF? “They weren’t killing us. And we didn’t care what they did to the IRA.”
Did he actually kill anyone while in Ireland? “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
A semblance of ‘normal’ life emerged at 19 when he focused his sights on an Irish girl and married. “She was a good woman but I never really liked her.”
Frustrated he couldn’t simply go out and shoot the known IRA members, Gow bought himself out of the British army, took himself off to South Africa and fought in the Civil War as part of Special Forces.
“I fought all over, in Botswana, Mozambique, was shot once and decorated twice. I was made up to sergeant.”
The politics of his killing choices didn’t register. Nuanced argument didn’t enter his thought process. “I killed a lot of people and it felt great. And I’ve never had a flashback. I’ve killed people closer to me than you are now, shot them through the head.” He adds; “When you shoot someone close up you feel this blast of air hit you in the face.”
He was shot in the leg in Mozambique. “I shot the guy who shot me. He began to twitch and turn like one of the aliens in the old Cadbury’s Smash advert.”
Gow returned to Britain where he joined the SAS. From one killing machine to another. One great disappointment was having a mission cancelled when the paratrooper (who was actually scared of heights) was commanded to kill Argentine pilots on Port Stanley airport. The Argentines surrendered before he had the chance. Gow was gutted. But let me throw in a little psychobabble, Henry. Could it have been you didn’t care if you died because you had so little self-esteem?
“No, none of that crap,” he says, laughing. “I just figured I was better than everyone else.”
Henry Gow is clearly a very intelligent man; he has a top Law degree and a Masters in International relations. “My one piece of advice to anyone growing up as I did would be to get educated. Take a student loan Get a degree. It makes you capable of so much more.”
But did his innate intelligence never get in the way of shooting people? He ponders. “I was intelligent . . . but I had never been educated, and taught perspective.”
If the story so far suggests a cold, heartless man, it’s far from true. Back in Britain he met his second wife. “As soon as I saw her I fell madly in love, right up ‘till she walked out my life.” He was heartbroken. But why did she leave? He thinks for the longest time.
“I had left the army and joined the RUC, and it was a time of constant threat, on and off duty, and constant overtime. By this time I’d also began working for my sergeants’ exam.” He pauses, and says, softly; “If you want to keep a jewel shiney you polish it. But I didn’t. I then made the mistake of chasing after her. The more I chased, the more she pulled away.”
Henry Gow’s heart was broken but soon after the rest of his body was also in bits. Driving one afternoon, a little old lady stepped out in front of him. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and went through the windscreen. His neck was fractured. “Doctors said if I hadn’t been armoured with muscle I would have been dead.” He adds; “I could deal with the physical pain, but my career was over.”
He moved back to Hereford, to spend months in recovery. And to pass the time he wrote a book, which became the best-seller Double Kill. (Writing as Harry McCallion. He has since written several novels and his autobiography.)
Meantime, he met a new lady, Chrissie, fell in love and she is now his long- term partner. But what to do for a career? Now, in his late thirties, he decided to become a full-time lawyer, and he began the process with the same aggression and determination – and discipline - he once brought to fighting the enemy.
Gow is now a barrister, and most of his cases are against “the section of the police who don’t obey the law.” (He gets more than his share of speeding tickets.)
And he’s a happy and contented man, evidenced by the fact he is naturally funny in conversation and reveals a real warmth. If there’s any sign of psychological damage it only emerges when he rhapsodises over Theresa May’s legs.
Gow however still loves to fight, but these days the adrenalin is released in the courtroom.“It’s legalised GBH. Come and watch me sometime.”
He adds, grinning; “You know, I still love a square go.”