‘If I didn’t stop,
I’d end up dead’

One-time Liverpool hard man Billy Moore has turned his life around and now hopes to help others escape a life of crime and addiction

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Billy Moore recalls standing on the red carpet at Cannes Film Festival in May 2017 at the premiere of A Prayer Before Dawn, a movie adaptation of the book he’d written about his brutal incarceration in Thailand.

“It felt like the world was cheering and clapping, the lights were flashing, and people were screaming my name,” says Moore. That was Saturday night. By Monday morning, he was in a crack den in Liverpool still wearing his tuxedo.

Drugs were endemic, gang culture was rife and human life was deemed cheaper than cigarettes

It was another self-sabotaging act fuelled by a drug addiction that had plagued Moore, a self-proclaimed habitual criminal, throughout his adult life. As he describes in his new autobiography, Fighting for my Life, Moore was in and out of prison from his late teens.

When he travelled to Thailand in 2005, he was clean and determined to turn his life around, and it seemed to be working for a while.

He taught English and worked as a stunt man on Rambo with Sylvester Stallone, but when he ventured into the underground Muay Thai fighting scene, drugs and crime made a familiar reappearance.

In 2007, he was arrested and given three years for handling a stolen mobile phone and, after a stint in a Chiang Mai jail, was transferred to Bangkok’s notorious Klong Prem prison.

He slept on the floor of a sweltering cell he shared with 70 inmates, witnessed beatings, stabbings, rape and dead bodies being carted off on a regular basis. Drugs were endemic, gang culture was rife and human life was deemed “cheaper than cigarettes”, he recalls.

For a long time, he was haunted by what he witnessed, “but the more I’ve spoken and written about it, the more I’ve healed, and they’re more memories than nightmares now”, says Liverpool-born Moore, 48, who’s quieter and more measured than you might expect. There’s just a hint of jovial cockiness when he quips he doesn’t look his age.

Moore found refuge and focus as part of the prison’s boxing team, and in time was granted early release by the King of Thailand for excelling at Muay Thai, serving the remainder of his sentence at HMP Wandsworth.

A Prayer Before Dawn, starring Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole, doesn’t shy from the grim reality of his experience, and was shown to great acclaim in Cannes, but Moore couldn’t shake the sense of shame as he watched his life play out on screen.

“I felt a little bit embarrassed that was actually my life,” he confesses. “It’s a great movie, but I didn’t feel proud, like wow, look at me. It was more like, is this what you did? Is this how you behaved? These are the situations and consequences you created for yourself?”

He feels the same about the conclusion of his Cannes experience.

“When I was writing this book, I was thinking how could I have gone from Cannes to a crack den in 36 hours? But then I was masking it [my drug addiction and mental state] when I was out there, to be fair. I was pretending everything was fine on the outside, but inside I was totally a mess.”

Things got messier. The film’s producers paid for him to go to rehab, but he was thrown out for disobeying the rules, and when he was arrested for burgling his neighbour’s house in Walton, he was sentenced to two years, five months in February 2018.

It meant that when A Prayer Before Dawn was released that summer, Moore was already serving time inside HMP Liverpool, a place he already knew, having protested on its roof back in 2003. It was a sad cycle of events but provided the wake-up call he needed.

“I finally realised I wasn’t getting any younger, prison life wasn’t getting easier, and I needed to take responsibility for myself. If I didn’t stop, I’d end up dead or homeless or in prison again. It was like I had one final shot and made the decision enough’s enough. I’ve now been clean almost four years.”

When he was sentenced, he was already five months in recovery and admits he was tentative about his stint in Liverpool prison. According to a damning report by prison inspectors in 2015, they’d found it chaotic, dirty, overcrowded and poorly equipped, a place where drugs were readily available and disciplinary measures applied disproportionately.

“Do you know, there were times when I thought I’d love to be back in Thailand [prison] just for the benefits of being out of your cell. In Liverpool, you were in your cell 23 hours a day,” says Moore who passed his time mentoring younger prisoners and began writing his book. It isn’t only his life story but an exposé of the reality of the British prison system, and how it falls short.

“It’s got to a stage where it’s just about locking people up. There’s no rehabilitation, no education, no building up of people – just a cycle of being in and out,” says Moore. “If you live in a shell and you’re in your mind constantly, or you’re in bad company, it’s not a positive place. There are a lot of lost souls and you can access drugs quicker than you can on the streets of Liverpool. There are also a lot of young, inexperienced prison officers who are being manipulated and misled. It’s all quite volatile.”

Moore says he “fought tooth and nail” to be transferred to a category D open prison and was eventually transferred to Thorn Cross, near Warrington, a place that gave him hope. He believes society would benefit from more of these prisons “where you’re called by your first name and treated like a human being”, but highlights the troubling irony that the people who make it there are already on the road to recovery.

“The addicted who really need to be treated with love and professional care are constantly locked up in the harshest conditions, perpetuating their addictions and behavioural problems.”

Moore has used the page, screen, and social media to raise awareness of issues, but some people might question whether he deserves a platform given his track record.

“I used to worry what people think, but that was pride, my ego. When you sit with your conscience alone, it’s judgement enough, and I’m quite okay with who I am and what I do today. I can’t do anything about the past – it’s about changing the things I can,” he says, stressing he doesn’t want to make excuses for his past actions, but to share his story “to give others the courage to change”.

“I’m hoping people understand the contributing factors, not just of my life, but each and every person out there who struggles and the reason why they go down these pathways and end up in these situations, because I didn’t wake up one day and make the decision to use drugs and spend years in prisons and institutions.”

Growing up the eldest of six siblings in Liverpool, Moore says he became what he saw. He describes how he regularly witnessed his mother being berated and beaten by his father, “a brute of a man who drank too much alcohol”, and was beaten himself until he was physically able to stand his ground.

“Years ago, we never talked about mental health or PTSD. It was unheard of. No one was understanding of the trauma you were subjected to when you were conditioned to believe you’re worthless and aren’t going to amount to anything. Getting that drummed into you at an early age in childhood has an impact on your youth and as an adult.”

He always felt like a loner. “I’d see my brothers and sisters have people knocking at the door for them and I always felt different, like I was looking through someone’s front window. And then there was the name calling. That was more painful than being beaten up.”

He joined a local boxing club at 13 and showed an affinity for the sport but the approval he sought from his father was never forthcoming.

“It didn’t matter what I did, he wasn’t really that interested. I was craving to be liked and loved, and desperately longing for that acceptance and his approval.”

It was boxing that gave Moore the confidence to start socialising, but then “you meet people on the wrong side of the street”. He began drinking, taking drugs, stealing cars and getting into fights.

Joe Cole plays Billy Moore in A Prayer Before Dawn, when boxing success brought its own pitfalls

“People told me I was out of control or I was crazy, and I’d thrive on that. If you gave me that label, I’d feel better about myself because it became my way of coping with other people. If you felt threatened by me, then I felt safe.”

He might have acted the tough guy, but he insists that’s not how he felt.

“I wasn’t the one looking for violence, but I was subjected to a lot and I’d stand up for myself. I got a reputation for fighting that there was no stopping. You weren’t all of a sudden going to become Mother Teresa and be really cool, calm, and collected and full of inner peace. It was just ongoing.”

He’s spent almost 22 years in various prisons for convictions including drugs offences, dangerous driving and burglary. He’s been stabbed in the chest, survived a motorcycle accident and was diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2016, which saw him relapse. Drugs have been a near constant since he began smoking cannabis as a teen. By 17, he was on heroin.

“Addiction gave me the inability to feel human. I was desensitised. I had no feelings of empathy towards anyone else. What was more important was where I was going to get my next drug from. It comes above your family and friends and yourself, before anything, and was the most important thing in my life at one point.”

Common themes in Moore’s conversation are shame, guilt and the consequences of actions, something he neither had the ability nor inclination to concern himself with in his younger years.

“I used to judge others because I felt low self-esteem. To elevate my own feelings, I’d pull other people down to make myself feel better. Now, I’ve got more awareness and understanding, and I can empathise a lot more with people because you don’t know what someone’s been through.”

Since his release on Christmas Eve 2018, he’s been “happy to make my way in life through quiet improvements rather than giant leaps”. He’s regularly in the gym, he doesn’t smoke, drink or take drugs, and he eats healthily.

It’s not just for himself now, but for his son, Albie, who he had with his partner Michelle last year. He describes himself as a mature and loving father of the type he never had, though he happily recalls growing to love his own dad before he died.

Moore now works with initiatives such as Weapons Down Gloves Up in Liverpool, which introduces boxing to young people as a way of promoting employable skills.

“We talk about crime, gang culture, prison rehabilitation, bullying. I’ve got a lot to offer in lived experience. I want to show there’s another pathway and a better way of living and you don’t ned to make the same mistakes as myself.”

And he’s hoping to write another book, this time focusing on his brother Joe, who has autism. The pair recently climbed Snowdon for charity and raised over £20,000 for Alder Hey Hospital.

“I feel settled,” says Moore. “I don’t need to be this labelled junkie or criminal. It’s not who I want to be, it’s not who I really am.”

Fighting For My Life by Billy Moore is out now

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