You’ve got it or you haven’t

Iain Sinclair

  • Inside the Firm: The Untold Story of the Krays’ Reign of Terror by Tony Lambrianou and Carol Clerk
    Pan, 256 pp, £4.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 330 32284 2
  • Gangland: London’s Underworld by James Morton
    Little, Brown, 349 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 356 20889 3
  • Nipper: The Story of Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read by Leonard Read and James Morton
    Warner, 318 pp, £5.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 7515 0001 1
  • Smash and Grab: Gangsters in the London Underworld by Robert Murphy
    Faber, 182 pp, £15.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 571 15442 5

Anthony Lambrianou, the self-confessed author of Inside the Firm: The Untold Story of the Krays’ Reign of Terror, admits that Ronnie Kray did shock him. Just once. An unforgettable occasion. A motor eased alongside Tony at the corner of Blythe Street, Bethnal Green. Ron and Reg were inside, keeping company with a known associate, Dickie Morgan. Reg was nicely cased in a blue three-piece by Woods of Kingsland Road. Dickie matched him. (The Twins were very influential that way. All the faces were expected to dress to a middle-management standard.) Reg was, as Tony acknowledges, ‘one of the smartest men London ever turned out’. But Ron, the younger twin? There he was, large as life, out and about in his own manor, wearing ‘slacks and an open-necked shirt’. He didn’t have a tie!

That was the moment. The tickle of ice on the spine. Put it down to executive stress, the ravages of Stemetil, Largactil, Reserpine. These were anxious times: pharmacological excesses joining battle with an increasingly visible chorus of demons. The double act was in serious trouble. Ronnie Kray, performance artist and comedian of terror, was beginning to lose his audience. Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read’s weasels were infecting the landscape with rumours: all the creeping, ugly dream-things the Twins had always vigorously suppressed were daring to emerge by daylight. The aura of magical protection that encircled these backlands, the dusty parcel of spielers, drinkers and markets, was fractured. The blue slacks were a signal, a flag of surrender to the inevitable. Tony read it instantly. He understood that for future analysts the temporal reservation known as ‘the Sixties’ would be seen to consist of three elements: ‘villainy, business, image’. Ron had blown his cover. No tie, no credibility. (That dreadful nanosecond of recognition, like something out of Performance, gangboss bare-necked in the window of the car, was a prophetic flash-forward. A jolt of bad karma carrying Ron directly to Broadmoor, where ties would be forbidden, and shoelaces a guilty memory.) It was over. Act V, scene vi of the Scottish play. Epping Forest on the move. The power of the name would never again be enough. (Kray being the Anglicised form of Krähe, the German for ‘crow’. Tell that to Ted Hughes.) The Bethnal Green labyrinth was still guarded at each of its four corners by pub signs bearing the portraits of birds, but the missing tie had undone all the familial superstitions. Reg was divided from Ron. The chicken-entrail voodoo of the Twins had definitively lost its sting.

Membership of a tribal society (Gangland as much as Metroland) depends on conformity to agreed parameters of dress and behaviour. When that society is made up of the great unwashed, slags staggering around the streets looking like mere labourers, artisans, then it is vital to acquire the status bestowed by top dollar tailoring. Villains, fighters, crooners: their privileged uniqueness is necessarily reinforced by suits cut with all the precision of samurai armour. The alpha males, enforcers trading on reputation, need an additional edge: the Look. A retinal freeze-frame, a graveyard wink. Colour dies in the face. The cheeks collapse and weather to the grain of a high-speed print. The Look is what separates the wide boys from the punters. Neophyte hardmen must master the shtick whereby a single glance transforms the victim’s backbone to play-dough. Psychosis on tap: no limits, these franchised damage merchants are happy to go all the way. Beserker mayhem is then neatly balanced by a carapace of sartorial respectability, showbiz conservatism; the sort of charity-show swagger that mugs you with its understated discretion. Brilliant white collars, sharp enough to chop onions. Exuberant manacles of cuff. Silk ties forcibly repressed into knuckle sized knots. Ferociously bulled black shoes to mirror the action, dizzy from stomping on rib cages, hacking at kidneys, leaving hoofprints of polish on the client’s chainstore shirt. Torpedo suits: riveted, not buttoned. Lambrianou glossed the style, perceptively, as ‘meticulous ... without being flash’. No excess tomfoolery on the fingers, no medallions around the neck. You didn’t want to be mistaken for a street-trader or a football manager. The semiotics were clear, hard-edged: Italian elegance with British bite, a Whitechapel translation of second-generation Mafia mufti. The business for the aspiring businessman, the boxer in the boardroom. (A high-profile exemplar of this style was the magnate, George Walker; once, according to James Morton, an ‘ally’ of Billy Hill and Eddie Chapman, later a frequently puffed adornment of the Thatcherite open market culture.)

There is nothing new in the concept, quality tailoring bonded over primal naughtiness. It has been spelled out frequently in the underground literature that shadows the nightworld of clubs, dog tracks, the ring. Ghetto fiction, under-the-counter page-turners, authors whose names are whispered among the cognoscenti like a confederation of secret masters: Gerald Kersh, James Curtis, Mark Benney, Robert Westerby, Alexander Baron, John Lodwick, Jack Trevor Story. They have been struck from the canon, these technicians, these life-enhanced witnesses. They are noticed only by slumming journalists (who have built up their own collections of the stuff) or by condescending arts programmers prepared to suffer a ten-minute Patrick Hamilton retrospective – as long as it goes out at midnight. Lowlife fictions, closer to the action than any scissors-and-paste ‘true crime’ anthology, inform us, involve us, excite us, return us to a lost sense of our own mortality. Here the gangs are depicted not by court cases, length of sentence, medical reports, but as energised individuals fated, wriggling and writhing in a real world. So that, even as early as 1938 in his masterpiece, Night and the City, Gerald Kersh tags the metaphor: violence expressed by choice of wardrobe. He describes his street-wise ponce, Harry Fabian. ‘He dressed far too well. There was a quality of savagery about his clothes – hatred in the relentless grip of his collar, malice in the vicious little knot of his tie, defiant acquisitiveness in the skin-tight fit of his coat.’

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